Humans crave touch from the moment we are born.
Studies have shown that touch is important to infants' development, and as we grow up, that impulse to connect never goes away. We instinctively know how to grab on to and hold another person for comfort or to express affection.
But while most hugs are nice, some are better for us than others.
The majority of hugs last about three seconds, numerous studies have found. And more than a decade ago, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported the benefits of the prolonged hug: one that lasts 20 seconds. This type of contact boosts levels of oxytocin -- also known as the "love drug" or "bonding hormone" -- as well as serotonin, the biochemical that helps stabilize mood.
Oxytocin is released at that point where trust meets touch. There's a surge in our bodies when a mother breastfeeds her baby, or during an orgasm, or even during an extended, 20-second hug.
It is a powerful hormone that bonds us to the people who provoke that oxytocin release.
Nick Ortner recently published a children's book called "The Big Book of Hugs: A Barkley the Bear Story," which teaches children and parents about the power of hugs.
"We've become very head-centric," Ortner said. "We try to think our way out of everything, to mentally process it, and we've ignored that we have a body."
Ortner listed the overwhelming benefits of frequently hugging your kids: Long hugs help children feel loved and safe. They build trust and closeness between the parent and child. They improve pulmonary and immune system functions and sleep patterns. They strengthen digestive, circulatory and gastrointestinal systems. Hugs lower anxiety and stress, and lessen feelings of loneliness, isolation and anger.
They teach us how to give and receive.
Since his daughter June was born more than eight months ago, Ortner's been practicing what he preaches.
"We hug the baby all the time," he said.
He acknowledges that this dynamic will change as his child grows up, and that the concept of personal space differs from culture to culture. Americans tend to prefer a large zone of space around them.
Even so, knowing the benefits, I decided to implement this "prolonged hug" agenda at home. First, I approached my youngest, who is 10 -- an age when hugs are still willingly given and accepted. I told him I needed to hug him for 20 seconds, wrapped my arms around him and started the stopwatch on my phone.
After a few seconds, he said, "Why is this so long?"
I assured him it would be over soon, and afterwards, I asked how he felt.
"Well, relaxed, sorta."
"Smiley. That's pretty much all."
Those reactions seemed pretty consistent with the research.
I moved on to the teenager. I am not allowed so much as a smile in her direction in public, so this hug had to occur far away from any potential embarrassment. Still, she agreed to accept my longer-than-usual hug.
"How do you feel now?" I asked.
"Protected, I guess," she said. (That made me want to hug her far more often.)
My last hug recipient required some upfront clarification.
"I need to hug you for 20 seconds," I said to my spouse. "But don't get the wrong idea. It's for a column."
He was still amenable to the idea. We were watching television on the couch, so I had to lean into this hug. After my timer hit 20 seconds, I asked for feedback.
"It was relaxing at first," he said. "But then you were crushing me, and I couldn't really breathe, but I thought I shouldn't tell you at the time."
But hugs are always relaxing, he quickly added.
A close call.
It called for a closer embrace.