Myriads of studies have shown that physical contact between humans — such as kissing, hugging, or simply touching — is essential for overall mental and emotional well-being. Hugging, in particular, can improve psychological development, boost your immune system, decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower the risk of heart disease: all perfect reasons to take part in National Hug Day, which falls on January 21st.

National Hug Day first began in 1986, and was started by Reverend Kevin Zaborney in Caro, Michigan. Zaborney believed that Americans in particular live in a society where showing feelings in public is embarrassing, and he wanted to change that by putting hugs in the spotlight one day out of the year (it’s true, studies have shown that French couples are three times as affectionate in public than Americans). He chose January 21 because it fell in between Christmas/New Year’s and Valentine’s Day; it’s also in the dead of winter, a time period where most people’s spirits are low, so seemingly a perfect time. Though it’s not a national holiday, National Hug Day is officially recognized by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The holiday has also since spread to other countries.

Why Hugging Is Good For You

When you hug someone, you are offering a form of social support and receiving some in return, and this serves as protection against stress and sickness, according to a recent study. People who reported higher numbers of hugs showed less of a risk of getting sick with a common cold virus. “[B]eing hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Sheldon Cohen, author of the study, said in the press release. “The apparent protective effects of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy.”

An earlier study, published in 2003, came to a similar conclusion: hugs and hand-holding in couples increased their levels of oxytocin, known as the “love hormone,” which facilitates bonding. Hugs also reduced the harmful effects of stress, and a bit of cuddling or physical contact before a rough day “could carry over and protect you throughout the day,” psychologist Karen Grewen of the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said. Hugs make cortisol, the stress hormone, drop; and increase the “feel good” hormones, dopamine and serotonin. The same study found, interestingly, that people who lacked in physical contact with other human beings had higher blood pressure and heart rate than people who experienced touch often.

Hugs Help You Find Meaning In Life

In addition, hugs and soothe your anxieties, fears, and existential crises — at least for a short time. “Even fleeting and seemingly trivial instances of interpersonal touch may help people to deal more effectively with existential concern,” Sander Koole, the lead author of another study on hugging, wrote. When people were faced with realizing their mortality, being grounded by the touch of another person helped them overcome their fears. “Interpersonal touch is such a powerful mechanism that even objects that simulate touch by another person [such as a teddy bear] may help to instill in people a sense of existential significance," Koole said.

Beyond being a simple show of affection, hugs go as far as to alleviate your fear of mortality and risk of heart disease (who knew)? So get out there and hug someone — whether it be a relative, friend, or total stranger.