Blokes of Aotearoa, It’s Time to Hug: How 6 Seconds of Cuddling Can Help Men’s Mental Health

We’re deep into the throes of Movember – a month that’s much more than fundraising and sporting a ‘stash. Rather, it’s about having meaningful conversations about men’s mental health which are always important chats to have, especially when three out of four suicides in New Zealand are men and, unfortunately, mental health has been on the decline since 2018.

As a general rule, men need a little more help than women when it comes to having deep, meaningful conversations, let alone a good, long hug.

According to Movember Mental Health Expert and Registered Clinical Psychologist Jacqui Maguire, the typical Kiwi male handshake or firm pat on the back with a lightning-fast release won’t do the oxytocin trick – that is, the feel-good hormone that’s released when men hug for six seconds or longer, according to science studies.

“It’s true you might feel a tad awkward hugging a mate for six or more seconds however, there are profound benefits of a simple hug – hugging boosts your physical health (e.g. lowering your blood pressure) and helps people bond and feel a sense of belonging. Initial awkwardness will fade with practice.

“Hugging is a universal language of affection, friendship, compassion, love, familiarity, and unity. We can all recall experiencing a good hug that has lifted our mood and science confirms the incredible power of a hug to lift our emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing.”

We had a chat to Jacqui about all things men’s mental health, and how we as wahine can help the men in our lives and about Speight’s six-second hug campaign that is encouraging blokes to get in there and go for the cuddle!

Kia ora Jacqui! Tell us a little more about the six-second hug – is this really a thing!?

Hugging is a way for people from all walks of life to connect, a universal language of affection that can convey friendship, love, familiarity, compassion, and unity. Over decades science has unveiled the incredible power of hugs, showing how they can uplift our emotional, mental, and physical well-being. When we embrace with someone, even our pets, our bodies release a hormone known as Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love drug” or the “bonding hormone.” Oxytocin fosters our health and wellbeing. It’s a stress-buster, reducing cortisol levels and helping us stay calm. It boosts our immune system, keeps blood pressure in check, eases pain, and promotes restful sleep. Beyond that, Oxytocin fosters a sense of connection, bolsters our relationships and self-esteem, and boosts  courage and confidence.

How long should a hug last for Oxytocin to work its magic? Studies have debated between more than six seconds and more than 20 seconds, but the truth lies in the feeling. It’s not about the clock; it’s about embracing until both souls find relaxation – that’s the sweet spot. A quick pat on the back won’t do the trick! What’s equally important is how often we hug. In today’s fast-paced world, many of us are starved for touch and human connection. We lead solitary, busy lives with limited opportunities for physical closeness. The more the better. 

Lastly, the pressure we apply in a hug matters too. A gentle, heartfelt squeeze – not too tight, but not too loose – works wonders. It’s true, many of us might feel a tad awkward hugging someone for six seconds, let alone 20 seconds. But here’s a thought: let’s embrace the awkwardness. When we understand the profound benefits of a simple hug – the boost to our physical health and the deep bond it creates – any initial awkwardness pales in comparison.

Furthermore, the fumbling moments as we adapt to more frequent hugs can only add to the charm. Every smile, every burst of positive emotion, enhances the power of a hug. So, let’s open our arms, share more hugs, and let the warmth of connection envelop us.

When it comes to men’s mental health in 2023, how far have we come over the last few years?

Unfortunately Data from the General Social Survey showed that New Zealanders’ overall mental wellbeing has declined since 2018. Statistics from varying sources show that 22.8% of Kiwi men suffer from poor mental wellbeing; and whilst NZ males report lower rates of depression and anxiety than NZ females, men are almost three times as likely as females to die by suicide (74% of NZ suicides in 2023). 

I think as a nation we can observe that men’s mental health awareness has improved over the last decade. As a society we are getting better at acknowledging that we all experience mental health (which can fluctuate), spotting signs of concern and understanding the importance of checking in on people. I also think the pandemic shone a spotlight on the importance of social relationships and connection, as well as our human need for purpose and meaning, 

Yet you only have to look at the stats to know we need to do more. Whilst awareness is good, we need services to support people in need. We need to continue to break down stigma and overcome support barriers. We need to continue to proactively shape the narrative that a good Kiwi bloke has feelings, needs friendships, can be vulnerable at times and embraces an active lifestyle (to just name a few factors).

Looking forward we need think how we can: 

  1. Continue educating society on how to support boys and men to stay mentally healthy, build strong social connections and take action early when times are tough.
  2. Teach boys and men how to have conversations about vulnerable topics
  3. Understand (and this includes health professionals) that boys and men demonstrate poor mental health differently to woman, and design support systems that also cater to men (e.g. not all men show depression by being tearful, they may get irritable instead). 

We also have to remember that supporting men’s mental health is a role for everyone, not just men. We all have fathers, partners, sons and friends. If we want to raise the health for men, it’s useful to think of it as a collective responsibility.  

What are some of the biggest issues we still have to tackle? 

Tackling the traditional messaging of what it means to be ‘masculine’. There are many complex and individual factors at play in any men’s mental health, however psychology research indicates that masculine social norms (society’s unwritten rules about how men should behave) has a significant impact. Masculine social norms can influence how men behave, show signs of struggle, chose coping behaviours, use substances more readily and reach out for help less often. 

Generally in society we are facing a unique package of challenges. A cost of living crisis, global unrest and devastation, political uncertainty. We are living in a live experiment when it comes to work, particularly the transition to a flexible work from home culture. Whilst there are many benefits to flexibility, there is also great risk of loneliness and isolation. It’s harder to form relationships with colleagues and collaborate effectively.

For men, life challenges such as financial hardship and relationship breakdowns are significant risk factors for suicide. Therefore, it is key we keep an caring eye on the men in our lives and form habits on checking in on them. 

If we think a man in our lives is having a tough time, how should we open the conversation?

I think about these conversations as ‘check-ins’ with a start, middle, end and follow up.

To start with go broad: “How’s Things”, “I have wanted to check in, as I have noticed recently you haven’t seemed like yourself”. 
The middle: Your role is then to actively listen. To be present, ask questions and validate their responses. Whilst it can be tempting to try and provide solutions or perspectives, now is not the time and place. Be a curious enquirer, and help your person feel seen, heard and understood. 
The end: Encourage action by asking your person what would be helpful for them right now. Feeling as though you have autonomy and control in your life is an important factor to supporting mental health. Questions such as “What do you think would make the most difference for you right now” and “In the past when life has felt tough what helped” are helpful. Once you have explored their ideas you may then be able to offer suggestions, which I recommend you do in a gentle non-pushy way. “Have you thought about going to see your GP”, “I am just wondering if anyone else knows you are feeling like this or is there someone who would be helpful to have in your corner right now?”.

Caring for someone who is having a tough time is not limited to one conversation. Agree on a timeline to check in and stick to it. One of the most important things you can do is ask about what you’d specifically discussed last time. Get straight to it rather than skirting around it. Ask how they are, what’s the latest on their situation, what they need and how you can support them. Always go back to listening if other steps you’ve tried aren’t working.

Speight’s is proud to partner with Movember on such an important issue – we believe that together we can make a difference to men’s mental health and wellbeing.

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