Hugs make us feel good. You know it, I know it. But why?
For such a simple, common behaviour, it's actually a pretty complex thing to scientifically explain. But there's no doubting the positive emotional benefits of a warm embrace, according to new research.
Hypothetically speaking, hugging is thought to be good for us by somehow buffering against the deleterious consequences of psychological stress.
When we hug, we engage in what psychologists call 'interpersonal touch', which in terms of hugging can reduce levels of distress, help prevent us from getting sick, and have effects that are even more amazing.
But much of the existing research on hugs has focussed on hugs within the context of romantic relationships, which limits the extent to which we can measure the benefits of hugging more broadly.
To investigate this more generalised aspect of hugging, a team led by psychologist Michael Murphy from Carnegie Mellon University studied 404 healthy adult men and women, who were interviewed every evening by phone for 14 consecutive days.
During the interviews, volunteers were asked to discuss their experiences of social conflict during the day, and to describe their positive or negative emotional state.
They were also asked to detail their 'hug receipt' (the amount of hugs they got, or didn't get, during that day).
When the researchers analysed the responses, they found that receiving a hug on a day that interpersonal conflict was experienced correlated with improved emotional well-being, compared to days when conflict took place but no hugs were shared.
"We still have questions about when, how, and for whom hugs are most helpful," Murphy says.
"However, our study suggests that consensual hugs might be useful for showing support to somebody enduring relationship conflict."
That might seem pretty obvious, but it's still a significant finding – given everything we know about how conflict can have negative effects on our health.
As the researchers outline in their study, such harm encompasses everything from conflict-related psychological distress to disruptions of our physical health systems, increased risk for psychiatric illnesses, and even morbidity.
With so much on the line, knowing how interpersonal touch can positively affect our emotional state – and therefore our health more broadly – is important research.
Of course, sometimes people just don't feel like hugging:
That's okay too.
But for our loved ones, the researchers suggest that simply hugging them might sometimes be a more effective way of showing support than trying to talk through their problems, which can backfire by coming off the wrong way, eliciting anger, anxiety, and a depressed mood.
This kind of consequence might be the result of a perceived suggestion that the person you're trying to support can't competently manage their problems.
Generally speaking, provided you are emotionally close enough with the person, hugs might be a wiser strategy.
"Interpersonal touch behaviours such as hugs may buffer against stressors such as conflict because they increase perceptions of social support availability by tangibly conveying care and empathy without communicating to receivers that the receivers are ineffective," the researchers write in their paper.
In other words, hug it out. Don't talk it out. Hush, there are no words.
The findings are reported in PLOS One.