Feeling a little Grinch-like? Time to re-think: a new study offers a good reason to spread the love this holiday season. The research, published in Psychological Science, suggests that hugging could be a fast track to health.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University asked the 406 healthy adults questions like "If you were stranded 10 miles from home, would someone come pick you up?" to determine their levels of social support. Then, they asked if they had been hugged and if they had experienced tension or had a fight every day for 14 days. Next, the study participants were exposed to a virus that causes a common cold.
Those who received few hugs and encountered more conflict were more likely to catch a cold. But those who also came across a lot of conflict, yet received many hugs, did not show an elevated risk of getting sick. In other words, hugs could help our bodies fight off germs. It's unclear if that's because the idea of hugs give us the mental feeling of social support or if it's the actual hugs themselves that physically signal support. "My hypothesis is that it's a little of both," says Denise Janicki-Deverts, a research psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University.
One possible reason behind a hug's germ-fighting power? When we undergo ongoing or large amounts of stress, the body releases cortisol, a stress hormone. And cortisol can reduce other bodily functions that are not as vital in fight-or-flight situations, according to the Mayo Clinic, including the immune system. That means stress could result in lower immunity, something social support could help to curb.
The bottom line? The new study suggests that receiving social support in the form of hugs can help keep us healthy. “I don’t know if I'd go out and hug a stranger," says Janicki-Deverts. "But if you have friend offering a hug, it could be beneficial to accept it.”