The Hug: Simple Gesture, Mighty Impact

I remember reading a saying to the effect that a smile is a signal that the doors of your heart are open. Who is not reassured or feels warm when being smiled at, especially by a stranger, and even more so when one is in a foreign land? Why, even locally it would be most welcomed – especially at the immigration counter at the airport when one is arriving after a long, tiring flight. Many of us have been faced with stony miens, with not even a shadow – like Mona Lisa’s – of a smile.

A couple of years ago, I read a short report on a piece of academic research carried out in America which shows that hugging enhances the happiness of huggers. At first sight this seemed to me to be stating the obvious, but at the same time the finding did confirm what we know by experience isn’t it? I mean who doesn’t like a warm hug, at whatever age? Even temporarily, doesn’t a hug lift up our spirits, especially if our mood happens to be low?

What the researchers were after, as scientists, was to find out if there was a mechanism that explained the enhancement effect. In fact, they concluded that it was the hormone oxytocin that was responsible. Oxytocin, produced in the brain by a gland called the pituitary, is more well known for its role in pregnancy, and during and after childbirth, when it stimulates the ejection of breast milk, and plays an important role in bonding mother and baby.

Studies have shown that oxytocin also evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security. Except for the anxiety issue, don’t we instinctively apprehend the other feelings when a baby is being sucked by its mother? Other studies showed a correlation of oxytocin with human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear. One study confirmed a positive correlation between blood oxytocin levels and an anxiety scale measuring adult romantic attachment, suggesting that oxytocin may be important for the inhibition of the brain regions associated with behavioral control, fear, and anxiety. Oxytocin also functions to protect against stress.

For these and other reasons based on sound scientific research, oxytocin has been called the ‘love’ hormone. But we have not reached a stage of an oxytocin pill that can make people hate instead of loving one another – a much more complicated matter than can be addressed by science alone! And hopefully we will never need such a pill, in anticipation of the day when, perhaps, the milk of human kindness would flow effortlessly towards others…

Nobody will deny, given the events that we daily witness both in our country and in several other countries – big and small, developed and underdeveloped – around the world, that this is the most vital ingredient that our sick societies need as a matter of urgency today.

Nevertheless, the findings uncovered by such research gives us not only better understanding of the bodily mechanisms that underlie our behaviours and actions, but also, importantly, that there are positive physical changes that take place in the parts of the brain that handle our emotions. Up to only a few years ago it used to be thought that once the brain had reached adulthood, the number of cells that make it up cannot increase, but now it has been established that this not the case. Not only can they increase, the connections between them at junctions called synapses also increase.

The total effect is to make for a more efficient brain, and such research is part of an expanding new field, neuroscience, which has scientists from several disciplines cooperating to devise new techniques which help in identifying the areas of the brain that are involved in different emotional states. Happiness and meditation are being similarly researched. While it is no doubt very interesting to elucidate the scientific aspects, it is more comforting for us as human social beings to know that the simple gestures that we have been performing to bond to others have a solid basis, and can only be more beneficial even if this be by a ‘spillover’ phenomenon: the happier more people are surely the happier all people will be too. Happiness by contagion what! Wouldn’t the result be a better society?

In a discussion among three experts whose area of concern is the impact of new technology, such as the Internet and social media, on the brain and human behaviour, the issue was whether data overload was making us smarter or more isolated. One fear was that technology was becoming an end rather than a means to an end. But a telling comment more relevant to our topic was that ‘every hour you spend sitting in front of a screen is an hour you are not talking to someone, not giving someone a hug, not having the sun on your face.’ (italics added) I would add: reluctance to offer a smile.

In an interaction between two immigrants, one related how his ailing father of 67 years had stubbornly refused to retire, and continued to toil as had the ‘millions of immigrants the world over who had fled poverty, dictatorships and other horrid living conditions to make better lives for their children.’ He added that he had ‘endless admiration for his father’s work ethic’, and that whenever he was performing onstage his father’s story was always with him. Further, he wrote, he was not the only person dealing with such a story: it was anybody’s and everybody’s story, of those whose lives had been spent struggling against all odds to make ends meet and raise their families, prepare the future for their children.

But what do many ‘modern’ children tell their parents? To panne faire narien pou moi… (you haven’t done anything for me!)

The other person in this conversation was so moved that he confessed, ‘I never thought about how much our fathers are willing to suffer, just so we never have to lose the ability to smile. You make me want to go home and give my father a hug.’

The other one said, ‘hearing your story makes me want to do the same.’

All Mauritians who have lived abroad relish coming home for holidays to bask in the family atmosphere that we take for granted here. It is a known fact that social life in our island, as is probably the case in other islands too, is much better and richer in terms of emotional satisfaction than the isolated ‘metro-boulot-dodo’ type of life that one is forced to endure elsewhere. Of course there may be people who prefer such a life of isolation and relative anonymity – but they are in a minority, and even then certainly would not resist the hug when they come here! Those who visit regularly do so as much for the sun and sand – or whatever is left of the latter – as for the human warmth, the hugs and kisses, which produce the same happiness effect

I remember that in the olden days, practically the only outing was to visit relatives. Later, on becoming more ‘sophisticated’, we have tended to look down upon such visits. But who does not remember with fondness part of school holidays spent at Nana-Nani’s house, and how the latter indulged in gater (spoiling) their grandchildren, of which hugs were a major component?

It is unfortunate that the stories of paedophilia by rogue priests and some teachers, and of sexual predation by sundry deviants that can include close relatives, have placed the human contact under suspicion and scrutiny. But if such a wonderful and innocent gesture as a hug can make us happier, why don’t we restore human contact to the respectful, loving place it should occupy in our lives? Sure we all want to be happy, perhaps happier too?

So, whenever we can, let’s hug… and spread a-smiles…


* Published in print edition on 19 March  2015

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