On September 2, 2012 there was an article by Elizabeth Day in the Guardian Observer about ‘Juan Mann’ – a pseudonym for the man who started the ‘Free Hugs‘ movement in New Zealand. There were 42 comments to the article (including ours), and comments are now closed, but in reading through the comments they seemed to be polarized between those who had participated in sharing free hugs and those who were adverse to the idea. While Marcia and I would never try to take someone beyond their comfort level (we wait for people to come to us and those who aren’t interested get a smile and a wave) it seemed to me that those who were repulsed by the idea spoke up for one of a couple of reasons. I thought I’d explore those reasons here, and as always, others are welcome to join the conversation!
The first reason people spoke around was ‘intimacy’ in various forms. Hugging someone is an intimate act, no two ways about it. To start with however, intimacy and sex are separate things. Sex can involve intimacy, but the two aren’t necessarily tied together and hugging isn’t sexual. That’s not its intent, nor should it be. But in a larger context intimacy involves touch, and that’s well, a ‘touchy’ subject for a lot of people.
Physical touch between humans and between humans and other animals is not only healthy, it’s a vital part of our existence… so much so that there’s even a medical term known as ‘touch deprivation‘. Going back to the 1940s, an MD named Rene Spitz wondered why babies in his care were dying even though they were well fed and kept in sterile surroundings. In the 1960s, (cruel) experiments by Harry Harlow with infant monkeys proved that monkeys that were fed but deprived of physical contact failed to develop the ability to interact with other monkeys. Other studies have shown that touch-deprived children in orphanages have developed a range of psychological and medical conditions including stunted growth, while premature infants who are massaged daily will gain weight faster and move out of intensive care much earlier. Seniors who receive regular physical contact are shown to remain healthier longer and have lower incidence of alzheimer’s and dementia.
Unfortunately, several cultures in the world today have become ‘touch-phobic’. We (wrongly) associate physical contact with an increased likelihood of sexual abuse and maintain a policy of ‘stranger=danger’. I still remember one day, years ago, walking through a department store when I passed a woman and her young son. The boy looked up at me then turned to his mother and asked curiously, “Is that a bad man, Mommy?” The poor woman was so embarassed she almost pounded her son through the floor, but a child learns what s/he is taught. A friend of mine once told me a story where she saw an obviously distraught woman screaming and running her hands up and down the bricks on the wall outside her building to the point where the woman’s hands were bleeding. When my friend asked what was so wrong the woman confided that no one had touched her in three years. Numerous studies, including those by James Prescott, John Bowlby and Mary Salter Ainsworth for example have shown that societies that encourage healthy touch in all stages of life are less violent, less abusive and that lack of touch can lead to depression, anger, and even neurological damage. It can also become a repetitive cycle, where children who are touch-deprived grow up into closed, suspicious adults who deny their own children affection and those children grow up… Granted, many factors play into the development of every one of us, but healthy, open loving touch is so vital and free to everyone. I won’t cross into your comfort zone to give you a hug, but you’re welcome to cross into mine if you’d like one.
The other reason mentioned in the comments was a mistaken impression that people who participated in random acts of kindness (like sharing free hugs) did so in order to get some sense of happiness or well-being from the exercise. Physical touch, as mentioned above is a wonderfully healing exercise and does produce the release of endorphins in the brain, so hugging someone does make both parties feel good. However, it’s not that one goes out with free hugs posters in order to feel good, (the way one might take drugs in order to get high); it’s actually the opposite.
Happiness itself is hard to define. Someone once described the difference between happiness and joy as one being extrinsic and one being intrinsic. We’re happy because_____, happy because some condition is met, whereas joy is simply because we are. We experience joy simply because we choose to feel joy; we’re joyful simply because we are. Dr. Kenn Gordon once defined happiness as ‘Contentment punctuated by moments of pure joy.” I like that definition. No one wants to be ‘up’ all the time – that would probably get tiring. But a baseline of contentment, punctuated by moments of joy… that I can do. I am happy.
When Marcia and I did our first ‘Free Hugs‘ campaign, at first we were more than a little terrified. We had no idea what to expect from the crowds of people who were passing by, and until the moment we unfurled our ‘Free Hugs’ posters we were as anonymous as everyone else in the crowd. Once we held our posters up, however, we stepped out of that anonymity. We had something to offer, and we were willing to share an exchange, a moment with anyone who was willing to take a similar step. At times I feel open, exposed, vulnerable, and at times I feel warm, enclosed, ecstatic, loved. We offer all the loving attention we can gather into a brief moment to anyone who is willing to participate in the exchange and both partners benefit from the exchange. But offering ‘Free Hugs’ isn’t something we do in order to feel good… it’s something we offer because we choose to live open, joyful, caring lives, and sharing that with others is a part of the exchange. Try it… you might like it!
P.S. If you’d like a hug or would like to share one but you’re not sure you’re ready to take that step, feel free to drop by ‘The Nicest Place on the Inter.net’!
P.S. II, the sequel:
Please check out our other ‘Free Hugs’ posts!