We all need comfort. Photo: Stocksy
When Canadian university student Godfrey Coutto boarded a bus last year he had no idea he was about to become an internet hero – and a symbol of the power of touch.
Coutto, 21, was sitting next to a stranger, Robert, who happened to be deaf and have cerebral palsy. When Robert leaned over and hugged his fellow passenger and held his hand, Coutto didn't flinch. He let Robert hold his hand and hug him for the 30-minute bus ride. Another passenger took a photo of the pair and it went viral on social media, accompanied by hashtags such as #sharethelove and #kindness. He "just needed comfort" Coutto told The Huffington Post.
We all need comfort. Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who developed the human motivation theory known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, placed love and belonging third, after physiological and safety needs.
But Gisela Adams, clinical co-ordinator at Relationships Australia NSW says many of us don't get the level of human contact that we need.
"When we experience positive touch in a loving, trusting and respectful relationship, it gives us physical, mental and emotional well-being," says Adams. "It lets us know that everything is okay, that one is not alone."
Hugging and touch releases the love hormone, oxytocin, which creates feelings of warmth, trust and connection while decreasing depression, anxiety, pain, aggression, fear and stress. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that hugging can protect stressed people from infection and illness and can also be a great source of social support.
So how much hugging do we actually need? The late American psychologist and family therapist Virginia Satir said that we need four hugs a day for survival, eight a day for maintenance and 12 a day for growth.
Adams says this may be the hug threshold that allows the body to produce enough oxytocin. "Touch can be very helpful and therapeutic. Hugging boosts satisfaction in relationships."
If you're not in a romantic relationship, don't live near close family or if you're a reluctant cuddler, there are still ways to give and receive a boost of oxytocin.
Handshakes, high-fives and shoulder or elbow touches are gentle, non-intrusive ways to connect with friends, colleagues and people you meet for the first time. Many people get a massage to relax and ease sore muscles but it's also a great way to get a hit of the love hormone.
A more novel approach is to hire the services of a "professional cuddler" such as Samantha Hess, who runs her business in Portland, Oregon.
For a fee, she is available to hug people – the lonely, divorced, sad, grieving, single, busy, introverted, disabled. In fact anyone who wants a warm hug and an act of kindness from another human.
Hess may give and receive affection on a daily basis but there was a time in her own life when she felt deprived of touch from her husband.
"I became bitter. I was alone on top of a mountain, completely isolated," she says in her book, Touch: The Power of Human Connection. "His inability to touch me sent our marriage into a downward spiral. Life is too short to feel unfulfilled. My need for touch is the foundation of how I experience acceptance. His rejection was too much to bear." She left the relationship.
Now, she says, "Every day I get to make people smile. Every day I get to make a difference. I get to change the world, one hug at a time."
GET MORE HUGS IN YOUR LIFE
It's easy to get in an emotional rut with your family. We take each other for granted.
Hug your partner and children before you all go your separate ways for the day.
Always give a hug at bedtime.
Defuse arguments with a simple embrace.
High-fives and pats on the back are good ways to bond over a job well done and will also give both parties a nice shot of oxytocin.
Shake hands with new colleagues and clients.
Shake hands when any client turns up for a meeting (even if you've known them for years).
High-five or gently backslap colleagues to celebrate a win. Outstretch your arms as a way to offer a hug in times of need where appropriate (happy or stressful times).
Adolescents and people who have experienced negative touch may shy away from an embrace.
This doesn't mean that they don't need affection too. A brief touch is enough to relay a message of kindness and caring. Trust is key here, says Hess. "Trust is something many of us take for granted. If someone does not trust me, I should not invade their personal space."
If you think a hug might be too much for someone, lightly touch their hand or forearm.
Offer the palm of your hand for a low-five. This waist-level gesture is used in the same way as a high-five, and is a good one with teenagers.
When shaking hands, place your free hand on top of the hand pile, or on the other person's forearm.