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8 Hugs a Day to a Better World

November 16, 2011

Ellie Beckett
8 Hugs a Day to a Better World

James Havlicek recently brought you an interview from Claremont Graduate Professor Dr. Paul Zak (a.k.a. “Dr. Love”) on oxytocin, love, and dating. I also recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Zak, and I’m going to give you a slightly different take. Oxytocin doesn’t just apply to love in the context of romantic pursuit, we can also think of it in the context of the promotion of brotherly (or sisterly) love.

My visit to the Doctor ended how many doctor visits do: with a prescription. Only this particular RX isn't for Penicillin, it's for a daily oxytocin boost. I’ll cut right to the chase: 1 hug, 8 times a day, more if necessary. Common side effects include: increased happiness, boosted immune system, a bigger social network, and better relationships. Cautions and contraindications: don’t be creepy.

Dr. Love’s prescription of 8 Hugs a Day was developed as a simple and practical way to enhance oxytocin release, and it stems from research started in the early 2000's. If you’re not yet up to speed on oxytocin, it is a neurotransmitter released in our brains that increases compassion and trust. Zak calls it the moral molecule (also the title of his new book in bookstores this May), and it plays a large role in a lot of the good behavior that humans exhibit towards each other. It helps us feel empathy, experience love, and connect to one another. Once released, its effects last about a half-hour. If you can cause your brain to regularly release oxytocin, you will be happier healthier and have more friends.

In conducting his research, Zak found that touch was a very effective stimuli for the brain to release oxytocin. In one study, he found that people were more generous towards strangers after getting a massage. From these results, he asked, "what can people reasonably expect in terms of having opportunities to increase oxytocin in their brains and other people’s brains?" Well, he says, there are other forms of touch that we as social creatures engage in all the time that don't require a masseuse--a handshake, a pat on the back, a hand on the shoulder, high-fives, hugs--we’re constantly touching one another and seeking connections. Working with the stimuli of touch, Dr. Love came up with a simple and reasonable goal for us all: 8 Hugs a Day.

There are a few pointers from the Doc to make this practice even easier and more effective. If you are a relatively shy person, 8 hugs a day may be a challenging task requiring a new level of confidence and openness. Zak himself, a self-titled introvert, says he doesn’t know if he would have been able to do 8 hugs a day 10 years ago. Here’s a helpful hint: try pre-announcing your hug. The hug-ee will rarely say no, will be more open to the hug if they know it’s coming, and less inquisitive about its intentions--thus increasing the oxytocin generated and strengthening that connection. And now for his next point, you need to make sure the hugs you give are NOT creepy. Repeat, because this is an important point: NO CREEPY HUGS. Inducing a stress response produces the opposite effect as desired. Make your hugs natural and appropriate, and free of ulterior motives-- hug for hug’s sake, you’re not on the prowl.

Zak has presented his idea all types of audiences, including in New York City, at the Ted Global Conference last July, at Claremont's very own TEDx Conference earlier this year and even at a conference of CEOs. When asked how the idea has been taken by skeptics or business professionals, Zak says that among all people of all walks of life, the prescription is practical and tends to be embraced (no pun intended). In a work setting, the spread of love is desirable. In Zak's own lab, they hug all the time. It's part of making an efficient work group in which it's important for everyone to feel part of the family. Zak also notes that in the workplace sometimes you need people to do extraordinary things. Now, fear can be an effective motivator in the short term; people will do great things out of fear. Love however, is longer lasting, and people will do extraordinary things out of love.

To test the comprehensiveness of his idea, I probed a little deeper, asking if he thought the placebo effect had any effect on the practice: if I’m focusing every day on becoming happier by giving hugs, won’t the fact that I’m focused on positivity increase my happiness? Dr. Love replied both yes and no: sure, focus on happiness can make you happier, but the way oxytocin works and the real point of the 8 hugs a day is not to increase your own happiness. Instead, it is a practice in which you are giving your love freely, and that giving of yourself releases oxytocin for the receiver. If you get some release in return, great! But, the focus behind your hugs should be one of giving love, not one concerned with receiving it.

This idea has been road-tested all over the world, and the verdict is in; people love it. Why? Because it’s simple, effective, and there’s concrete science behind it. Dr. Love tells us, “whatever happens when you hug somebody is really magical... there’s a sense of connection, and everyone seems to want it. That’s a way to create a world that is better than the world without connection, it gives people a way to create a world they’d like to live on... and of course it’s catchy.” So folks, 'tis the season of peace and goodwill towards men, or at least that’s what Starbuck’s is telling me with their holiday music, snowflake decorations, and bold Holiday blend (Pre-emptive? Perhaps.) So spread some love this holiday season and beyond. Give a hug or eight. Doctor’s orders.

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