Through this global movement, scores of people hand out good will to strangers, people who – because of their culture or their loneliness – don’t tend to give, or receive, displays of affection.
Loneliness is a burden with a constant presence, and it is something that is tricky to shake off. In the United Kingdom, almost 2.5 million people between 45 and 64-years-old are neglected, while living alone with no children or partner.
This figure, according to the Office of National Statistics, has grown by 50% (more than 800,000 people) since the mid-90s.
Affection is further reduced if you take into consideration the individualism of British society and the need to maintain physical distance at all times, along with courtesy and self-discipline, all quintessentially British traits.
Culture and social behaviour have made it so there is always a barrier to intimacy and therefore, security. It is on the tube, the bus and also within friendships. It is the invisible barrier that separates and encloses every human being.
However, when a person is alone in a restaurant or having a coffee and there is a trace of melancholy or sadness in their expression, it awakens a feeling of compassion. They need company, but it is a complicated thing to cross the dividing line between them and others.
For them, it raises the question, can a person be happy if they don’t have anybody who they can hug, or hug them back? It’s a mark of the importance of a hug, that in India, the spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi Devi – better known as Amma (Mother) – concentrates on giving hugs.
The monastery where she lives has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of people who come to be hugged by her. She gives out a ration of cuddles for more than ten hours a day.
However in Europe, there are also people who altruistically offer affection to strangers. It happens as part of the global movement ‘Free hugs’, which began in 2004.
More precisely, the initiative came from the Australian Juan Mann, who was in need of affection when his circumstances landed him in a lonely situation. He needed a hug and had no-one. This led him to hug everyone who crossed his path.
Free hugs in London
In the English capital, as in the rest of the world, meetings are organised periodically through the internet, so that people turn up to offer ‘Free Hugs’, and share out their affection.
“It’s a nice way to express ourselves, to share love, kindness or joy,” points out Omar Oualili, explaining the thinking behind these events.
Young people believe fervently in hugs, “There are moments when we need someone to be close to us, but you can’t meet up with them. That’s why I think it’s necessary and also really important to hug someone, including strangers!” stresses Omar.
According to comments, people’s reactions depend on their knowledge of the movement and how timid somebody is but, in general, “everybody likes a hug.”
For his part, Omar doesn’t believe that the British especially need more hugs than other people who live in the UK, but he comments that ‘the majority of British people accept a hug easily.’
He explains that he was pleasantly surprised to see how “people from all nationalities asked me for a hug.” This is the reason that on 6th of January he will be alongside tens of people in Trafalgar Square, displaying affection.
The givers of these hugs, with their enthusiasm and promotional posters, have managed to cross the barrier to intimacy to provide a hug and distribute warmth, complicity and affection.
(Translated by Daniela Fetta)