Hugs are good things. They release oxytocin, the bonding hormone that appears to build trust, reduces fear, and increase compassion and generosity. Oxytocin is also related to decreased amounts of cortisol, thereby lowering blood pressure.
Paul Zak, from Claremont University, who has investigated the relationship between hugs and oxytocin, prescribes eight hugs per day. This releases an adequate amount of oxytocin to do all these things.
Unlike many other methods for feeling good that focus self-centered behavior, hugging stresses the interaction between the self and others. It is a kind of bonding agent. It feels good to be connected to others. And why not? We are social creatures, after all.
Physical touching extends outward, connecting being touched physically with being touched figuratively, according to Zak. The physical touch becomes the basis for the emotion known as compassion. So it is that we say that “I was touched by what I read,” for example.
All this is to the good. Who can argue with a prescription that costs nothing, makes you feel good and contributes to a more trusting and ultimately a better, more prosperous world?
Oxytocin is the moral molecule, according to Zak, and hugging is the key to releasing it.
The problem with the moral molecule idea is that it claims too much. As Aristotle, Confucius and countless others have noted, the moral position is frequently that between two extremes of deprivation and excess. The extreme of too little physical contact is clear, but can there be too much?
Yes, there can be. There are those who react to physical contact negatively. Just think of those who are sunburned. Don’t dare hug them. There are those who have sunburned psyches and experience hugs as an unwarranted and uninvited invasion of body space. For such people, eight hugs a day can easily be an overdose.
And then there is the matter of how hugs are given. Paraphrasing Aristotle, they need to be given in the right way, at the right time, to the right person. Appropriate touching is personally subjective and culturally shaped. What might release oxytocin in one person may lead to feelings of violation in another.
Here is a parable that illustrates this point: Two drunkards stumbled from the inn and fell to the ground. One of them embraced the other and told him how much he loved him. He clutched him even harder and drew him to his breast.
“I love you,” he said. “I really do!”
The second drunkard said, “You liar. You don’t love me. I don’t believe you.”
“No, it’s true, I love you.” And with that hugged him even harder. “On my mother’s honor, I love you.” He swore by everything he could think of.
The second drunk pried the first one loose, stood up and said, “I’ll tell you why you don’t love me. You only say so. If you loved me, you would stop squeezing me so hard. You have hurt my shoulder and arms and yet you continue to hug me. This isn’t love but hurting.”
So hugging requires a moral framework if it is to carry the weight that Zak and other researchers claim for it. Hugging can either heal or harm.