One day, not too long ago, I was in a crummy mood. A friend of mine said to me, “Did you know that a hug that lasts for at least 20 seconds releases oxytocin?” I admitted I’d never heard that, and that I was skeptical that it would feel any more comforting than a normal hug. So she demonstrated.
After the standard three seconds, I started feeling a bit awkward, and realized I had 17 more seconds to go. So I observed the way I felt awkward and strange, watching how it evolved. I felt some guilt for needing so much of someone’s time. I felt impatient, wondering when it would end, then remembered she said at least 20 seconds. So it could go longer than that. I had lost track of how long we had been hugging, which I suspect is the point of hugging that long.
And then, suddenly, I stopped fighting it, and just accepted that this might be a 30-second or 1-minute hug, and that it was fine because I wasn’t making my friend uncomfortable — after all, she was the hugger, and I was the huggee. That’s when I realized that I actually felt better. Tension in my muscles that I didn’t even know I was carrying suddenly relaxed. Even my face muscles softened. I didn’t feel so crappy anymore. In fact, I felt calm, and even a little happy.
Very shortly after that moment, my friend let me go. I think she felt me relax properly, and that may have been her cue. Either way, it timed out well. I was quite surprised by how much better I felt once I stopped feeling awkward and impatient.
So today, I researched this 20-second hug thing. I found a lot of people talking about it, and it was hard to track down the studies; what I finally did find was one study from the University of North Carolina which combined 20-second hugs with ten seconds of hand-holding while talking about fond memories and watching a romantic scene. All this was focused on intimate partners, and because of the other intimacy elements there, is not exactly rigorous evidence that a 20-second hug is superior to a 10-second hug or a 6-second hug, or a hug that lasts until both people actually physically relax. It just showed that affection from partners boosts oxytocin and reduces cortisol. (Oxytocin is associated with bonding, trust, and feeling safe; cortisol levels correlate to stress levels.) It also didn’t show whether hugs from friends or strangers would elicit the same results. In fact, another article I found alluded to the necessity of trust in the relationship in order for the hug to actually have all these positive effects.
In my research, I also found that humans tend to function in 3-second packets of time. This may help explain why we get so uncomfortable after that amount of time has passed. I also read that the pressure centres in our skin are connected with the vagus nerve, which is in turn connected to oxytocin receptors, so there may actually be some physiological support for this idea of hugs increasing oxytocin levels. In another article, I found that hugging multiple times per day is important for maintaining emotional health. I wasn’t able to find much about this idea, but it was interesting.
At any rate, my own experience shows me that, beyond what I think of as the standard growth opportunity of discomfort, there may be some real benefits from hugging those you trust for longer times, or at least more often. I would love to see someone study this properly, but I doubt it’ll happen any time soon, so we’ll just have to try it ourselves.
So try an awkwardly long hug with someone. I’d love to hear your experience, so feel free to comment on this post and tell me all about it.