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Hugging ! – The Latest Contact Sport

and it makes your brain happy

I love the part on talk shows when someone in the audience wins something. They might be sitting in a lucky seat or they may have sent in a heartfelt letter to the show, or they have given back to their community in some way. Whatever they’ve done – Oprah or Ellen call them up onto the stage -“Surpri-ise”. They jump out of their seat – giving the people they came with an OMG!-can-you-believe-this? look. They run to the stage, happy, awkward – excited. What is the first thing they do? The FIRST? They ask the host, (shyly) “Can I hug you?”

You know the answer.

“Of course!”

And, if more than one lucky audience participant is selected, they hug each other. Perfect strangers.

Today everybody hugs.

I don’t mean the hug you share with your child when he graduates from university and races towards you clutching his brand new diploma, or the hug you share with your son-in-law as he emerges from the maternity wing after the birth of your first grandchild. I am talking about a contestant on a cooking show thanking the judges (who have just disqualified him in the first round, on NATIONAL television) for this “amazing opportunity” and asking – “Can I hug you?”

I’m talking about a big, strapping, recently-arrived-in-the U.S.A., Russian gentleman we found on Yelp, arriving at my daughters apartment with a carpet cleaning machine, to clean a carpet she had spilled a can of paint on, asking me (her mother) for a hug.

I thought he was kidding.

I thought it was like, “Hey, I’ve been sucking dirt out of carpets all day, come give me a hug,” and I’m afraid I was a little rude to him. I really thought he was trying to be funny. In the end, I saw he was dead serious, so I hugged him.

As he proceeded to suck mint-colored paint out of the hall carpet with his machine I overheard him tell my daughter I was awesome. The last time I even had a shot at “awesome” was four decades ago. My, that was flattering.

Over the hiss of the steam-cleaning machine I hadn’t heard my daughter tell him that I was entirely Russian too.

So why has hugging a stranger become so commonplace, so the right thing to do?

Perhaps our motivation to be so quick to hug comes from wanting to show how accepting and giving we are, how politically correct, how evolved. Total acceptance of your fellow human and wanting to let them know you accept them and feel affectionate towards them, no matter what – even if they’ve sprouted antennae or have turned inside out – even better, because it puts us in such an attractive light. Or do we ourselves need the warmth, the human contact? Or both?

If you want to look at it from a purely scientific point of view, research says hugging is good for you. It lights up certain places in the brain and releases feel-good chemicals. They say for optimum health we all need 12 hugs a day. I believe this.

I’ve read that you should never be the first one to end a hug.

Wait. How does that work?

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