Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Free Hugs at UniMelb

Yesterday, a group of students studying a Positive Psychology breadth subject, Motivation, Wellbeing and Performance at the University of Melbourne, took on the role of "huggers" for an hour, offering free hugs to anyone and everyone. Incidentally, I wasn't taking this subject, but had found out about the event through Facebook and decided to join in, since I love hugs, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to spread some goodwill and to do something spontaneous.

The Huggers.
Source: The University of Melbourne Facebook Page.

Why Free Hugs?

The lecturer for the subject briefed us before we embarked on our hugging mission, reminding us of the rationale for this project. Hugs promote the release of oxytocin from the pituitary gland, which enhances empathy and the ability to trust others, as well as reducing the stress hormone cortisol. 

Personally, I saw it as a fantastic opportunity to promote connectedness amongst people. Too often, we are exclusive, reclusive and selective of who we trust and connect with. To me, free hugs is a way of breaking down that barrier of the Other and just recognising that we are all human and can bring happiness to others in a simple, yet meaningful way. It's a way of expressing affection in a non-selective way.

What did we do?

There were about 26 of us wearing FREE HUGS t-shirts or holding FREE HUGS signs. We swarmed around a popular path on campus and moved to an even busier location later, promoting "our product" by asking passersby if they would like a free hug and yelling out the benefits of hugs. Examples of what I said included:
  • "Free hugs for all!!"
  • "Hugs for happiness!!"
  • "Free hugs!! Woooo!!"
  • "Would you like a free hug?"
  • "Hugs are good for you!"
  • "Hugs reduce stress!"

How did people react?

People more-or-less reacted as I had expected. While there were a few people who enthusiastically accepted a free hug, it remained the case that the vast majority of people did not want to be hugged by complete strangers. Thus, the responses to "Would you like a free hug?" seemed to fall into these categories:
  1. The Enthusiastic Hugger: "Absolutely! I love hugs!"
  2. The Casual Hugger: "Yeah, sure, why not?"
  3. The Awkward Hugger: "Uh...ok."
  4. The Amused Passerby: (no response, walks away smiling)
  5. The Anxious Passerby: (gives strange look, walks away as quickly as possible)
  6. The Non-Hugger: "No thanks, I'm not into hugging."
There were far more rejections than hugs given, for sure! I'll let you make your own inferences about what that reflects or implies about our society and culture. Nonetheless, I know we brought a smile to many, whether from the happiness of a hug, or from the amusement of the spectacle.

What was it like being a hugger?

I have to say, this project actually required a lot of courage. It would be an understatement to say that it was a high-exposure task. It was super-awkward to begin with, and that awkwardness was always in the background. The most important thing though, was for huggers to be able to laugh off rejections and to remain focused on the goal of spreading joy, happiness and connectedness.

This focus made the whole process an exhilarating and mindful experience. I maintained a non-judgemental attitude towards all potential huggees, and was present and acutely aware of what was going on in each moment. By the end of the session, I felt a strong feeling of goodwill and love towards others, and was in a much lighter and more positive state of mind.


Human beings have a need to connect with others. Free hugs are a simple, free and genuine way to promote this goal, in a way that is fulfilling for both the hugger and the huggee. Despite the majority of people tending to reject free hugs, it remains a noble goal, bringing benefits to those who are willing to overcome the barrier of strangers and sociocultural norms, to connect with, share affection for and appreciate a fellow human being. Hopefully in the future, with more free hugs campaigns throughout in the world, there will be an increased acceptance of the value of free hugs in promoting connectedness and love.

I'm interested in your thoughts...

  • Would you accept a free hug?
  • Are hugs something that should only be given to friends and family?
  • Would you ever consider offering free hugs?
  • What would be your biggest fear in offering free hugs?'s the video!


  1. I'm a grad student in psychological sciences and stumbled across your blog via the Melbourne Uni Facebook page. Really impressive stuff. Keep up the good work!

    1. Wow, thank you so much for your comment! You may have just made my day! :)

  2. Nice green shirt, sticks out from the rest. You obviously got more hugs.

  3. How does one get involved in this group? I love hugs, wish I had've run into you guys!

    1. This was a one-off thing, but if there is enough interest there's no reason why we can't get a group of huggers together to do another free hugs session(s)!!!

  4. yes, i would accept free hugs for sure, whereas in Japan, there is a cuddle cafe where you basically hug the girl and sleep. So, I think free hugs are great things specially when given by an opposite sex and a good thing to do otherwise too. Well after reading your post, i don't think hugs are only for family and friends. It surely a good way to connect with people and it surely shows how emotionally departed is our society as you got more rejections than acceptance for such a noble cause. Well i would love to offer free hugs. My only fear is that while hugging some, it might turn out to be a sexual exploitation act for some cynical people which end me up in trouble.
    Anyways, that's a great job you did and keep it up!!!

    1. Hey Achin, thanks for your interesting comments. I'd never heard of a cuddle cafe before, but it sounds fascinating!!! The fact that there is a market for this kind of service obviously suggests that the need for (non-sexual) intimacy is non-trivial. It's true that there is that risk of exploitation involved, but I think it would be a relatively minor risk as long as there are plenty of people around! Plus, if we can be vulnerable in offering hugs to anyone, and nothing negative happens, it only helps to build our trust in others, even complete strangers.