Article previously published in the Cutaneous Lymphoma Foundation's Forum Winter 2012 newsletter.
He goes by the name Juan Mann, and he has certainly made a difference.
In January 2004, he left behind his life in London and returned home to Sydney, Australia. It was a lonely time for the 22-year-old bachelor. His parents had divorced, his grandmother had fallen ill, and he had recently ended a promising relationship with his fiancée. One night, feeling dejected and alone, he went to a party hoping to cheer himself up. Sometime that evening, a complete stranger approached him and gave him a hug. That small gesture had a profound effect. “I felt like a king!” he recalls. “It was the greatest thing that ever happened.”
Mann decided to pay his good fortune forward. In July 2004, he took to the streets with a cardboard sign advertising “Free Hugs.” He admits feeling terrified at first. When an elderly woman approached and accepted his offer, a social movement was born. The Free Hugs Campaign now stretches across Australia and New Zealand, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the United States and Canada, and Latin America. A video of Mann’s efforts, featuring music by the Australian rock band Sick Puppies, has been viewed over 70 million times on YouTube. Inspired by what Juan Mann could do, people everywhere started spreading the love. Free hug events have occurred in the most diverse of places, from Taiwan, Israel, and Uganda to Malta, India, and the Dominican Republic. That includes the United States, where free huggers can be found from San Diego to Boston, Seattle to Boca Raton.
Like Juan Mann, every one of us faces trying times. Perhaps we struggle in this slow economy or worry about seemingly insurmountable problems such as world hunger. Maybe we find our work unfulfilling and believe our talents are being wasted because of a lack of opportunity. Many of us, myself included, also manage cutaneous lymphoma and have to deal with the discomfort of both the condition itself and the treatment.
You’ve no doubt noticed that during times of stress, many of us have a natural tendency to reach out to others for support. When you’re diagnosed with cancer—or when you’re just having a discouraging day—communicating with a loved one feels like the right move. And in fact, a great deal of science suggests that it is.
According to UCLA social psychologist Shelley Taylor, we have more options for responding to distress than just fight or flight. Taylor says we also “tend and befriend” as a way to calm ourselves. Tending refers to taking care of people who need us (such as our children), and befriending means reinforcing the strength of our friendships and close interpersonal bonds. When we do those things, our bodies respond by lowering our levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing our levels of the feel good hormone oxytocin. Together, those two reactions allow us to recover from stressful events faster and more fully than we otherwise would.
That means Juan Mann was on to something. When he received a hug from a stranger at a party and it made him feel elated, he was experiencing the very stress-alleviating effect that supportive, affectionate communication has been shown to have.
We’ve just emerged from the holiday season, which for many people is a particularly stressful time of year. Whether you’re still feeling the stress of the holidays or you’ve moved on to the new year’s challenges, take a cue from science and remember that we can calm our own stress—and that of others—by making the effort to express our love to those we care for. A simple gesture of affection and support may not change the challenges we face, but it may change everything about the way we feel.
Kory Floyd, PhD, Professor and Associate Director, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Arizona State University