The Creative Power of a 7-Second Hug
I grew up in a formal, not physically expressive home where I’m pretty sure my parents shook hands to greet each other every morning. OK… maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But not by much. So, giving a hug to others was an uncomfortable proposition for me for the better part of my youth and early adulthood. Over time, my hugging aversion dissipated but remained a somewhat lingering awkwardness when faced with a “hug-or-not-to-hug” social predicament. So it’s perhaps a bit ironic that, several years ago, I had a revelation. As I struggled with finding a creative solution to a problem, I stumbled on a surprisingly peculiar solution to break my creativity block: The 7 second hug.
Let me rewind this by just a few frames. Several years ago, I was struggling with a work challenge: to modify the behavior of patients who were reluctant to stick to their therapeutic regimen. I had spent hours noodling on different ideas. I brainstormed solutions with my team. I scanned dozens of articles to find inspiration. I even took a long walk and let my mind wander. Yet, Nothing. Nada. No breakthroughs. Just a whole lot of cloudiness and recriminations for not having a fresh, inventive idea. I arrived home late that evening and my middle daughter, who heavily relied on her bedtime ritual of a hug and kiss on the nose, waited patiently for my arrival. As I entered her room, my frustrated mind jabbed at my throbbing temples. My tiny therapist invited me to sit down alongside her and tell her about my day. Which I did. I vented about my frustration and inability to find that single, creative breakthrough. And in her wisdom, that only a child possesses, she told me that a hug would cure me. And she explained that it would only work if it were an extra-long hug. Moments later, after closing her door and retreating from her bedroom, an epiphany washed over me, like a proverbial lightbulb turning on. The singular, creative idea that had been eluding me all day long suddenly emerged. I darted down the stairs and immediately scribbled down the concept in exquisite detail. The hug worked.
So what happened? It could’ve been mere coincidence. Or maybe my daughter is sorcerer. Or…maybe there is creative power in an extended hug. To be more precise, the 7 second hug. As it turns out, there have been numerous studies exploring the effects of an extended hug. And according to one study, it takes merely 7 seconds of a hug in order for your brain to signal the release of oxytocin – a hormone that is associated with, amongst other things, increased levels of trust, calmness and creativity. While I excruciated over trying to find the “right” answer to the challenge, I was probably releasing a very different hormone, cortisol, which is released during times of stress. And why this is important is because overexposure to cortisol can put us in the “fight or flight” state and impede our higher-order thinking, making it near-impossible to conjure up those creative insights and ideas.
Of course, hugging is not the only prescription for boosting your oxytocin levels when you’re in a creative jam: A nature walk, game play, laughter and even a phone call from mom (Seriously!) can provide you with the necessary dosage of oxytocin. And while a big bear hug can be just what the doctor ordered, not all people are comfortable with an unsolicited hug and not all situations are appropriate. You may want to lay off that hug while you’re waiting on the subway platform or in the middle of your performance review with your boss - unless, that is, you are preparing to become another footnote in the #MeToo movement.
Nevertheless, the seven second hug has become one of the tools in my personal repertoire that I go to when I find I’m feeling stuck or uninspired. Not every hug results in a breakthrough for me, to be sure. But it can clear the cobwebs and remind me of the sweet, little things that we take for granted while we battle the usual doldrums. Creativity loves constraint. But I think that creativity also loves compression.