A Surprising Way to Protect Yourself from This Year’s Nasty Flu

Or, how hugging could keep you from getting sick

Protect Yourself from flu | Behavioral research

Hugs for health

Let’s say you’re the kind of person who takes all the doctor-recommended steps to avoid other people’s germs and stay healthy. You’ve gotten your flu shot, you wash your hands regularly, and get plenty of Vitamin C. What else can you do to protect yourself from this year’s nasty flu? The answer may surprise you: give more hugs.

What does the research say?

A study [1] published in 2015 found that hugging (yes, hugging) and social support can protect against infection.

The researchers tracked a group of people to monitor their behavior, asking them all kinds of questions about their levels of social conflict, social support, and – you guessed it – hugging behavior. Then it gets really interesting. The researchers sprayed a virus up the participants’ noses (with consent, of course), quarantined them, and tracked their symptoms to see who caught the bug, and who was spared.

Who were the winners? Participants who reported more hugging and higher levels of social support were not only less likely to become infected in the first place but experienced less dramatic symptoms if they did become infected.

With some caveats

Because the researchers only measured hugging (rather than controlling the behavior, such as if they had asked some people to hug and others to avoid hugs), their results are correlational – which means we can’t actually claim that more hugs causes less illness. Perhaps it is the case that, for whatever reason, huggers simply have stronger immune systems? It’s certainly possible..

And we also can’t tease apart the hugs from the social support. Since huggers were also very likely to feel high social support, we don’t know which is more important. Perhaps the feeling of social support is enough on its own to account for the protective effects. Also possible.

And yet, who would argue against hugs?

Given these caveats, I ask: Why not try, anyway? After all, hugging brings all kinds of other benefits. Hugging makes our bodies release the hormone oxytocin, which increases trust[2], generosity[3], and even love[4]. You might find that the more hugs you give, the more social support you feel.

Don’t have someone to cuddle with? Professional “cuddlists” are popping up everywhere, making it as easy to get a hug as booking a haircut. Just don’t go around hugging people after you’ve contracted the flu…

 

Aline Holzwarth is a senior behavioral researcher and Principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science lab that helps people be happier, healthier, and wealthier, at home and abroad.


[1] Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science26(2), 135–147.

[2] Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435(7042), 673.

[3] Zak, P. J., Stanton, A. A., & Ahmadi, S. (2007). Oxytocin increases generosity in humans. PloS one2(11), e1128.

[4] Magon, N., & Kalra, S. (2011). The orgasmic history of oxytocin: Love, lust, and labor. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 15(Suppl3), S156.