Want to fend off illness? Try hugging more often. It may sound too warm and fuzzy to be true, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that more frequent hugs can help protect people from getting sick. Being stressed can cause greater vulnerability to infections, but hugs can apparently act as a form of social support that shields people somewhat from this increased susceptibility. Researchers first used a questionnaire and telephone interviews to assess the level of perceived social support, frequency of interpersonal conflicts, and frequency of hugs in 404 healthy subjects. They then exposed those subjects to a common cold virus and monitored them. As Carnegie Mellon News puts it, "perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with experiencing conflicts," and hugs can claim one-third of that positive effect.
Those with higher levels of perceived social support and more frequent hugs also experienced less severe illness symptoms if they were infected. "This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress," says the lead researcher. It's not clear whether it's the actual physical contact that conveys benefits or the fact that hugs are seen as a sign of support and intimacy, but, he explains to the Washington Post, "the study suggests that people who have relationships that are intimate enough that they're getting hugged are protected, and that hugging is one indicator of that." As the Huffington Post points out, hugging has also been found to have other positive effects, including lowering blood pressure and improving heart health. (Want to worry less? Go to bed earlier.)