Research finds surprising power in even casual embraces.
I had the honor of introducing Zen Psychology Therapy (ZPT)* at the World Congress for Psychotherapy in Shanghai in May 2014 . What an experience! In retrospect, two impressions struck me the most, the first being was the openness and intellectual vibrancy with which Zen Psychology and other hybrid approaches were received. Instead of being offended by a Western psychologist speaking about Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in psychotherapy, I was welcomed as someone who wishes to build bridges.
A Universal Need
The other had to do with how many Chinese colleagues—and even strangers—initiated conversations about physical affection, and the lack of thereof in China. My Chinese co-chair, who had lived in the United States for 10 years, explained that he himself had fallen in love with hugging, just like many other city residents of modern China.
As you might know, relatively few Asians commonly express their love with hugs. Why should they? For us to think there is only one way to affirm and support another person would be an arrogant stance. Many of them don’t miss physical affection, thinking of the custom of hugging, especially in public, as a silly display. And hugs are certainly not necessary for academic or professional success.
However, there are some hug benefits that cannot be kept a secret, even in the age of the internet:
- Security. A lot of time has passed since the Harlow studies, showing that poor monkey babies prefer a cloth doll without milk as a mother substitute over a metal doll with milk . Worldwide we agree that babies need to be held. There is evidence that adults who were frequently hugged and cuddled during early childhood display fewer stress symptoms than less-hugged counterparts . Physical affection also alleviates stress reactions in adults who report less existential anxiety even when touched only briefly . We are simply wired to find touch reassuring, as many studies of first impressions show .
- Positive Feelings. As adults, we can live without hugs, of course, but we do seem to be happier with them. We release the hormone oxytocin when touched, which elevates feelings of attachment, connection, trust, and intimacy.  When we’re hugged, we feel less lonely. I speculate that students feel less devastated by academic problems when well-hugged, well-assured, and well-bonded. Apparently, hugs facilitate social bonding and the experience of participating fully in this life, which, to me, is true happiness.*
- Better Health. Another commonly mentioned benefit of hugging lies in our improved health, as when we are touched our heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the harmful stress hormone cortisol are lowered . Reach out and hug, and your life might not only feel better, but last longer.
- Freedom. It’s a cliché to say that Asians cultures tend not to touch and hug, especially because times may be changing and people may be choosing not to fit in the same cultural box they always have. The intense longing for intellectual growth and freedom, the desire to build bridges between the West and the East, and the unprecedented curiosity and willingness to undergo the most taxing academic training all causes people to question everything. A young Chinese business woman who spoke to me about the need to break through glass ceilings in leadership positions thee—a need that we certainly share in the here—spontaneously held my hands while speaking about her ambitions. While talking to me about the courage it takes to travel alone to foreign countries, a Chinese woman I met in the subway suddenly embraced the friend next to her. Don’t get me wrong: It can be annoying to be touched by a stranger, or even by a friend, at the wrong time. And there will always be people who choose not to touch, such as the Zen monk with whom I had the privilege of talking at great length. But the emphasis here lies in choice. As people choose to leave a cultural box that insists on no touch, exposing their emotional and physical needs may be experienced as an overt sign of overcoming their fears and cultural conditioning.
Two Chinese students approached me to ask some questions after I spoke at the conference. Noting that I had briefly mentioned during my talk that physical deprivation is acknowledged as one cause of suffering in the West, the female student suddenly hugged me, thanking me profusely. The male student surprised me and followed her example. Feeling quite touched, I laughed, “Chinese people, I thought, don’t hug.” The students smiled and forgave me for me prejudice.
* ZPT is based on my book A Unified Theory of Happiness