Christmas Day was an opportunity for me to do something I had always wanted to do, yet had never quite had the courage to commit to in previous years. Inspired by the seasonal spirit, with three hours to spare and the willing support and collaboration of a few friends in Chiangmai, we all went to the centre of the city and stood in one of the busiest spots we could find – and offered to give “Free Hugs” to whoever wanted to receive them. By the way, the original idea came from Juan Mann in Sydney, who I heard about in 2006. He has an amazing story in which he made it his sole mission was to reach out and hug strangers to brighten up their lives. Feeling slightly nervous about the possibility of getting into several intimate clinches with complete strangers, I took a few deep breaths, held up my photocopied “Free Hugs” sign and waited eagerly to see what would happen.

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What I experienced really surprised me. That afternoon turned out to be one of the best Christmas Day’s of my life and reminded me about a few valuable truths. First, we all want to connect with people. There is no substitute for it. If you want to feel a powerful sense of aliveness, unconditional love, belonging to the human race and a multitude of other positive thoughts, then all you have to do is hug someone unfamiliar and really mean it. After a few minutes, my initial apprehension about getting up close and personal with complete strangers had gone and I noticed that the people I approached were really happy about it and enjoyed receiving their hug, despite them not knowing anything about me. This confirmed another belief, that most people are basically open and trusting of others. Of course, there were one or two cynics who asked “What is this in aid of?” or “Which organisation is behind this?” Yet even many of these people, once re-assured that this event was a totally makeshift, spontaneous happening with absolutely no agenda at all were happy to join in. Some even joined our group and started dispensing hugs to others.

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Come on – come and get your hug! (Photo’s: Above, Sachie Tsuyuki. Below, Greg Goodman) Our group of volunteer huggers had expanded quite a bit by the end of the afternoon

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During that afternoon, we must have collectively hugged in excess of 1,000 people. However, there was one particular person who I met that really touched my heart and that was Luciano. From Modena in Italy, he had hit hard times and was living rough in Chiangmai.  He was also unable to walk properly and was riding a tricycle for better mobility. When I showed up, he asked me what I was doing and I tried to explain, yet it was quite difficult as his english was not so good. So I stopped talking, reached out my arms to him and gave him the biggest, most loving hug I could. For me, it was an opportunity to practice and for him, it was literally life changing. His physiology completely altered, almost before my eyes. He became alive, energised and started beaming a huge child-like smile. When my friend Safi showed up, she too embraced him as he disclosed he had not been hugged by anyone for about 10 years. Just hearing that brought tears to my eyes and suddenly, I was deeply touched by seeing the power of unconditional love in action. In just a few seconds, this man’s life was transforming and so was mine as I witnessed it. For the rest of the day, there was no stopping Luciano, who was hugging everyone in sight – even the traffic policemen – and was able to discard his tricycle for a while so he could fully engage with the people he met. Since Christmas Day, he has made a sign of his own and now stands outside every day giving hugs to strangers. He is a man with a purpose and a new connection to life.

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Above: Luciano (right) meets Dennis Gillman. He now stands at Thapae Gate every day to give hugs away (below)


That evening, reflecting on what we had all seen and experienced, I became curious about why a simple hug is so enriching to our soul. Rummaging around on the internet, I discovered that (according to scientists) the average human hug lasts three seconds. Dr Emese Nagy, who led one study carried out by Dundee University’s School of Psychology, said: “It is obviously difficult to measure experiences such as a hug because it’s such an intimate experience and different for each person. However, what we have is very broad research showing that we experience the world in these three-second time frames.” Just imagine; in three seconds you could literally change someone’s life! There is more. Researchers have discovered something fantastic. When a hug lasts 20 seconds, there is a therapeutic effect on the body and mind, not to mention the energetic effect on our spirit. The reason is that a sincere hug produces a hormone called “oxytocin”, also known as the love hormone. This substance has many benefits in our physical and mental health. It helps us, among other things, to relax, to feel safe and calm our fears and anxiety. This wonderful calming is offered free of charge every time we have a person in our arms, when we cradle a child, cherish a dog or cat, when we’re dancing with our partner or just holding the shoulders of a friend.

IMG_1601Hugging is extremely good for our well-being. My friend Safi agrees! (Photo: Kimberly Bryant)

According to Marcus Julian Felicetti, writing for Mind Body Green, hugs are as beneficial as meditation and laughter. They teach us to let go and be present in the moment. They encourage us to flow with the energy of life. Hugs get you out of your circular thinking patterns and connect you with your heart and your feelings and your breath. The energy exchange between the people hugging is an investment in the relationship. It encourages empathy and understanding. And, it’s synergistic, which means the whole is more than the sum of its parts: 1 + 1 = 3 or more! This synergy is more likely to result in win-win outcomes.

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Thanks to Caroline Leon (left) and her friend Joan (centre) who made sure the Free Hugs day happened. Caroline is a coach and has her own blog at Life is Limitless. Our photographer Kimberly Bryant loved it too! (right)

There is a saying by Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist: “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” Eight or more might seem quite high, but while she was researching, she asked her child “How many hugs a day do you like?” She said, “I’m not going to tell you how many I like, but it’s way more than eight.” You can do some research of your own. Ask the people you care about how many hugs they would like and let people know what your needs are. And, if you feel like it on the odd occasion, simply offer a hug to a stranger and notice what happens! inspiration_heart_3

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