Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

One Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

By Haotian Zhou, Alex Shaw


Living in the fast-paced 21st century, the path to a meaningful life is often fraught with stressors of one kind or another. There’s no doubt that stress could be a positive force that motivates us to achieve what we are striving for. But it is becoming increasingly clear that stress can wreak havoc on our physical well-being, increasing our susceptibility to various diseases and in the worst scenario completely derailing our life plans. Given that it is probably impossible to rid our lives of all stressors, might there be any simple and cost-efficient ways of protecting ourselves from the deleterious impact of stress? According to a recent study lead by Carnegie Mellon psychologist Sheldon Cohen, the solution might be literally at hand!

Drawing on their own past research and extant literature, Cohen and colleagues hypothesized that perceived social support might protect people from the stress-elicited increase in susceptibility to diseases. Moreover, since social support is something intangible, its perceived availability has to be conveyed through observable behaviors. Thus, Cohen and colleagues further argued that frequent non-sexual physical contact, as exemplified by hugs, could be a very effective means of conveying empathy, caring, and reassurance, leading the hugged to believe that there is an abundance of social support in their social network.

Image ©: Tania Cataldo 2011

To test their hypotheses the researchers conducted a large scale study where they measured participants’ social support and immune response. More specifically, in the first stage of the study, Cohen and colleagues surveyed nearly 400 healthy adults via both questionnaire and telephone interview. These measures assessed the level of stress experienced by the participants, their level of self-perceived social support, and the frequency with which they received hugs from others. Then in the second stage of the study, the researchers intentionally exposed the participants to a common cold virus (with their consent) and placed them in quarantine to monitor the amount of viral antibodies in their blood (i.e. a marker of infection) and any symptoms of illness.

Recall that the researchers’ main hypothesis is that perceived social support can buffer the negative health impact of stress. Therefore, Cohen and his team primarily focused on those participants who reported experiencing non-trivial amounts of stress. Indeed, amongst these highly-stressed participants, those who perceived more social support were less likely to get infected after being exposed to the flu virus than those who perceived less social support. More importantly, a further analysis showed that the prophylactic effect of perceived social support was partly attributable to being hugged on a regular basis. In other words, the researchers found evidence that being hugged frequently makes one perceive a fair amount of social support in their social milieu which in turn protects one from the negative impact of stress.

To thrive and find meaning in an inherently stressful world, we need to be able to manage the toll that stress can take our body. The current research suggests that we might have overlooked a key to effective stress management right at our (neighbor’s) hand. Research at New Paths to Purpose has also focused on helping people maintain their health in stressful environments.  For instance, Professor Dillip Soman has been working with a weight loss clinic to determine if they can help people stick to their exercise regimens by simply inducing a mindset shift. Aside from teaching us to appreciate that hug we recently got from our mom a bit more, another lesson from this research is that we might want to be a bit more generous when it comes to giving hugs.  Why not give your loved ones a hug today? You won’t find a more cost effective way of making your loved ones feel better, both emotionally and physically. 


Haotian Zhou is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

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