Christmas spirit flagging? Go out and get a hug.
A new Canadian study has found that people who get hugs regularly are more likely to report better mental health. A warm embrace, in fact, had a more significant connection to an uplifting frame of mind than attending church regularly.
"For people who either benefit from affection or lack it, there are substantial differences," says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association of Canadians Studies, who analyzed the data from the 2007 Canadian Community Health Survey. "I recommend getting a hug."
Over all, Canadians appear to be a happy lot - with more than 60 per cent of the population reporting their mental health as excellent or very good. But in the national survey, Canadians who said they got hugs "all the time" were twice as likely as those who didn't to say their mental health was excellent. This makes sense, Mr. Jedwab says, because affection has a clear link to being part of a healthy, loving community. People with good mental health were also far more likely to say they had someone to turn to when they had problems.
At the same time, he says, it didn't matter whether people went to church every week or not at all - how they described their mental health didn't change.
The proportion of Canadians saying their mental health was excellent - or who said they felt "very satisfied" - and attend weekly worship was similar to the ones who never go. The pattern was the same among Canadians who saw themselves as very spiritual, and even held up among people who identified themselves as connected to a religion.
But don't rule out the health benefits of being spiritual, researchers say - especially in times of stress. In the past few years, a growing collection of studies have explored rates of mental illness among the religious, many of them finding that the incidence of depression and anxiety is lower among this segment of the population. A new, two-year Australian study that tracked people hospitalized with depression found that those who expressed core religious beliefs recovered faster - and that faith had a greater influence than either medication or community support.
"It's not just the social component, says Marilyn Baetz, an associate psychiatry professor at the University of Saskatchewan, who studies the role of religion in mental-health treatment. "People can use religion as a coping mechanism."
But the story is complicated, Dr. Baetz says. People lean less often on religion when times are good, a fact a survey may obscure. And a strong faith can also work against treatment, she says, if, for instance, the person decides "[leave]the situation in God's hands."
Either way, Mr. Jedwab says, religious leaders may be wise to take note of his findings: "To be on the safe side, clergy may wish to conclude their services by inviting [their]congregations to give someone a hug."