Hugs, Rats & Jessica

Flu season is coming and it turns out the latest preventive prescription is hugs!! Isn’t that so awesome?! #hugs4health! I cherish a good hug. I regularly warn people when I’m meeting them for the first time and they extend a hand to shake, “nope, I’m a hugger, I’m coming in for the hug!” Of course I pay attention to body language, if the person looks horrified or the situation is culturally inappropriate, I back off and respect their space. But in my experience virtually all people will return my grin and hug me right back.

Virginia Satir, one of the key figures in the development of family therapy, considered to be the mother of Family System Therapy, is famous for saying:

“We need four hugs a day for survival.
We need eight hugs a day for maintenance.
We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”

So you can see why I work so hard to get those hugs in everyday. It’s not always easy, let me tell you, as a single mom of one amazing daughter (my favorite human!), even with all the hugging she and I do, it can be hard to get enough hugging without a romantic partner. It helps when your workplace is hug friendly. But don’t give up if you mistakenly believe your hug would be treated suspiciously at work. Take heart from the example of someone working at Wharton Business School who wanted to see more hugging in her work environment.

I’d like someone to add a hug meter to the fitbit. Then, maybe, just maybe, I’ll bother to wear one. 

Speaking of hugs, we all know the saying “hugs not drugs.” The research into the impact of a positive social environment on reduction of addiction is pretty sobering (no… really… how could I not??). Most folks probably have some familiarity with Bruce Alexander’s research in which he developed the Rat Park (not to be confused with the Rat Pack) and studied the behavior and choices of rats in isolated cages, as had been done in prior addiction research, and the behavior of rats in a groovy, tricked out “Rat Park,” built to give those rats everything they could hope for in a cage including, in particular, each other. The punchline is that the rats in Rat Park had far lower substance use and addiction rates than those in isolation. There is a wide array of research and thinking on the topic of addiction and it can get pretty heated and controversial. My point is simply that the quality of your cage matters and social connection helps a lot.

Emotional isolation is ranked as high a factor for mortality as smoking.

I had the pleasure in the spring of 2014 to coordinate a training for Philanthropy Northwest’s (@philanthropynw) regional convening on ACEs and the NEAR sciences by Healthy Gen’s Laura Porter and the wonderful researcher Dr. Christopher Blodgett, Director of The Child and Family Research Unit at Washington State University. In the training, Chris said something that struck me so much that I now repeat it (and credit him for it) everywhere! He said “relationship IS the evidence based practice.” How wonderful and right on is that?!

Recently we have been seeing a wave of articles come out on the impacts of loneliness on health. New Republic did a nice write up two years ago, concluding (emphasis is mine): 

There’s something awe-inspiring about our resilience, too. Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls “molecular remodeling.” “One message I take away from this is, ‘Hey, it’s not just early life that counts.’ ”

More recently, the well known neurosurgeon and author Dr. Sanjay Gupta published a short article summarizing the effects of loneliness including among many key items, new research conducted by psychologists at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah that found that social isolation (both actual and perceived) may be more deadly than obesity. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness increase a person's chance of premature death by 14 percent -- nearly double the risk of early death from obesity. 

So, think about how you can get your hugs and reduce your own isolation, if you experience any. But also, think about what you can do to help someone else with that who might need it. If we all got at least 12 hugs a day, I’m guessing we’d all be a little bit closer to Jessica’s experience of life here, and who wouldn’t want that??

And now that Jessica's got you feeling good and full of joy, sing along to one of my favorites, "Tree Hugger" from an Olympia musician, Kimya Dawson and Antsy Pants (made famous in the movie Juno) with a delightful animation. At a minimum it'll get your toe tapping'!