Don’t hug me! Hug them – they’re Finnish.

I have friends who live in South America, North America, the United Kingdom and of course, just down the road here in Australia. While spending time with all of them, I learnt plenty of different things about them, likes and dislikes, music preference and such. One of the most interesting things that we often talked about together, was how much touching and hugging each person could stand.

Yes. Hugging. A cuddle, a snuggle, a canoodle if you will. Why did it come up? Some of my friend’s loved giving cuddles – to the point of imitating a koala – and others genuinely detested it. It was the difference between them all that was always amusing and yet evokes some interesting questions.

Bonobo Chimps grooming each other, with one looking incredibly relaxed. Credit: Tambako the Jaguar

Why do we hug?

I think it’s best if we travel back in time– way back in time. Primates, our cousins, groom each other far more than is hygienically necessary, and kinship and hierarchy dictate how much time is spent being pampered or receiving pampering. This excessive grooming allows the structures within groups to remain stable over time. It also can assist to reduce stress amongst individuals in the population.

Sound familiar?

Postnatal skin-to-skin contact, that is having close body contact with our mother, creates incredibly strong bonds between a mother and her children. Not only that, an increased level of – ahem – touching between romantic couples was shown to positively affect their relationships.

Creating bonds between mother and baby is made stronger through hugging.     Credit : Kasey Olivia

Why does it feel so good?

Not only is hugging incredibly comforting and a way of showing affection, it has also been shown to lower blood pressure and increase oxytocin levels (the “cuddle hormone”) in the body. The best side effect of hugging, I think, is the reduction it can cause in cortisol levels (the stress hormone). This can be particularly beneficial for anyone suffering from anxiety disorders where cortisol can run rampant through the body.


What do you mean you don’t like hugging?

Anything by Sheldon Cooper (from the Big Bang Theory) is usually awkward. His hugs even more so. Credit: Katherine Miller.

If we jump back to some of my previously mentioned friends, some of them were incredibly explicit about not being hugged. Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, a study showed that people’s tolerance of touch and hugging was related to emotional, cultural and spatial exposure. The study covered many European countries, and it appears that the English are particularly uncomfortable with displays of affection unless there are strong emotional bonds within the relationship. Of all the European nations tested, Finland took the top spot for cuddliest nation. Perhaps that’s why they were voted the world’s fifth happiest nation.

Our exposure as children, with friends and between our siblings and parents, can influence how much touching and hugging we’re comfortable with. As with many human traits, childhood exposure to a variety of things, such as diet and exercise, will dictate how little or how much we do them. If it is socially or culturally unacceptable then the likelihood of being comfortable with it is incredibly low – the principle is the same for hugging.

I think hugging has played a large part in Finland’s happiness ranking. The reduction in stress levels, increase of oxytocin and stronger emotional bonds, it certainly sounds like a good place to be. Personally, I think there are definite benefits in working towards being more like Finland – let’s embrace the Finnish way!

2 Responses to “Don’t hug me! Hug them – they’re Finnish.”

  1. Jinia says:

    Hi, Kelsey

    I like your post. Oh ya, cuddling does feel so good and I love big bang theory Lol. Anyway maybe you can shorten your hooked in the first paragraph for your next post. Good luck 🙂

  2. Ashley says:

    Thanks for an engaging read, Kelsely! Warm hugs are so soothing – it’s interesting to hear about the underlying science.

    This reminded me of an article I read in Cell about the evolutionary significance of why other people’s skin feels softer than your own.

    Nice work!