A hug really does make you feel better after an argument, according to a new study.
Holding hands also improves a persons’s mood after a conflict, and the effect lasts into the next day, researchers found.
Studying 400 people, the team at Carnegie Mellon University found those who shared a hug with the person they’d fought with were less likely to harbor negative feelings in the hours and days after.
They believe this adds weight to other studies showing affectionate human touch has a calming effect on the nerves.
Dr Michael Murphy, of Carnegie Mellon University, said: ‘Non-sexual interpersonal touch is emerging as an important topic in the study of adult social relationships.
‘Interpersonal touch can be defined as touch behaviors for example hugging and holding hands that are used to communicate affection or are generally thought to indicate affection.
‘Enthusiasm for this topic is bolstered by multiple lines of converging evidence suggesting that individuals who engage more frequently in interpersonal touch enjoy better physical, psychological, and relational health.
‘Mechanistically, theorists have proposed that one of the key pathways through which interpersonal touch benefits well-being is by helping buffer against the deleterious consequences of psychological stress.’
An argument with a loved-one can be distressing in many ways – both psychological and physiological.
Severe or repeated distress from arguments can build up feelings of anxiety, paranoia, loneliness, and depression. If that accumulates, it can put someone at risk psychiatric illnesses and suicide.
‘Conceptually, touch may buffer against these consequences by promoting a number of positive interpersonal processes thought to communicate care and inclusion and be protective in the face of conflict,’ Dr Murphy explained.
‘In particular, interpersonal touch is associated with increased attachment security, greater perceived partner support, enhanced intimacy, higher relationship satisfaction, and easier conflict resolution.’
But past studies have largely focused on the role of touch in romantic relationships.
So the new study focused on hugs – a relatively common support behavior that individuals engage in with a wide range of social partners.
The researchers interviewed 404 adult men and women every night for 14 consecutive days about their arguments, how they resolved them, and how they felt afterwards.
Those who did share hugs or hold hands were questioned further about those intimate moments: how often do they normally hug, do they often hug after a fight, and how does it make them feel?
Pooling the results, they saw a clear correlation between hugs and moods.
Those who shared a hug with the person they’d been fighting with were more likely to feel positive emotions after, and less likely to feel negative emotions.
That powerful effect seemed to linger too: interviewees reported a generally positive mood the next day.
‘We hypothesized that individuals experiencing interpersonal conflicts would have greater negative and lesser positive affect on both the same day and the following day,’ Dr Murphy said.
‘Moreover, we further predicted that these associations would be attenuated for those receiving hugs on conflict days.
‘Conflicts were independently associated with greater concurrent negative affect and lesser concurrent positive affect, though not with next day negative or positive affect.
‘Receiving a hug on the day of conflict was associated with improved concurrent negative and positive affect and improved next day negative affect compared to days when conflict occurred but no hug was received.’
While more research is needed to determine possible mechanisms, the findings from the large community sample suggest that hugs may be a simple yet effective method of providing support to both men and women experiencing interpersonal distress.
Dr Murphy added: ‘This research is in its early stages.
‘We still have questions about when, how, and for whom hugs are most helpful.
‘However, our study suggests that consensual hugs might be useful for showing support to somebody enduring relationship conflict.’
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.