The Hug Experiment

New England is known for a few key things:

  • The Red Sox.
  • Clam Chowder.
  • And people who tend to be, well, stand-offish and aloof.

I am home-grown from the West Coast, where it’s common, even expected, to speak with strangers in the grocery store, or to engage in friendly banter in the coffee shop. But here, people tend to look at you like you have spinach growing out of your ears if you happen to strike up a conversation. It takes time, lots of time, to really get to know someone at heart-level, which is painstakingly aggravating for my not-so-patient disposition. Don’t get me wrong here – I love Boston – but sometimes I’m frustrated by the general detachment that seems to exist between people.

Last Sunday, my friend Sung Yun and I didn’t go on a quest to change any of these things, nor did it even cross our minds until after the fact. Rather, she just showed up to our Sunday afternoon outreach with an extra sign bearing the good news of “Free Hugs.” I instantly became her partner-in-crime for this spontaneous social experiment.

We set up camp beside the subway entrance. As we clutched our signs, for a few moments no one even acknowledged us, defaulting to the typical New England tactic of ignorance. I shouted, “FREE HUGS!” and in that moment a woman entered the scene, saying, “I love hugs!” and enveloping me in a giant bear hug. People around her smiled. One man, uninterested a moment ago, took a detour to join us in our love parade in the corner. I was sold.

Click here to watch the video:

There’s something about hugging that puts a smile on your face. I think it’s because as much as we try to hide it, all of us are longing for physical affection, for someone to enter our “bubble.” In fact, hugs are scientifically proven to boost happiness levels by getting oxytocin (the “love drug”) flowing through your body, which can lower the risk of heart disease, combat stress, and boost the immune system.

So that’s why a sign with “FREE HUGS” is a remarkable tool. It’s not forcing anything on anyone; rather it simply conveys, “Here we are! The invitation is open. Come on over.” I said a silent prayer for each person that I hugged and left them with the blessing of “Have a great day.” How many other things in life are quick, simple, and totally free, yet can transform someone’s countenance so deeply?

I’m now convinced that we can change the world, one hug at a time. So this afternoon, why don’t you grab a friend and some markers, and boldly proclaim to the world the opportunity for an embrace?


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