After Edie Weinstein had a heart attack in 2014, she decided to add walks to her routine. Then she went a step further and began offering hugs to the strangers she encountered along the way.
“Hugging is not only emotionally heart-friendly but cardiac-health friendly,” said Weinstein, 61. “As part of my rehab, I walked around my little town of Doylestown.”
She hugged her way to good health — and she’s been hugging ever since, sharing tearful clasps at Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, happy embraces on Philadelphia’s South Street, and memorable clinches throughout Ireland.
She hugs on birthdays; holidays, especially Valentine’s Day; to celebrate her annual “cardioversary;" when she has a free hour during the workday (she’s a licensed therapist); while vacationing; during down time on business trips. She plans to return to LOVE Park on Dec. 7 and hug her way round the Christmas Village, the park’s annual pop-up of holiday kiosks.
Her words to live and hug by come from family therapist Virginia Satir, who died in 1988: “We need four hugs a day to survive, eight hugs to keep us as we are, and 12 hugs to grow.” Humans, Weinstein said, have “skin hunger” and need to be touched.
“We’re hardwired for hugs,” she said. “Babies who don’t get enough touch fail to thrive. The same is true for adults.”
Weinstein isn’t the only person seeking to use physical touch as a way to connect.
The international hug movement is usually traced to 2004, when a man began offering embraces to strangers in a shopping mall in Sydney, Australia.
There are committed hug-givers throughout the nation, like Billy Park, 53, who has hugged his way across 23 states including his home state of Massachusetts. Locally, David “Big Dave” Sylvester, 53, of Southwest Philadelphia, has been sharing “hugs and high-fives” since 2001.
A lot of the huggers know each other or have at least met online. Park said he and Weinstein have shared more mental squeezes than physical ones, but the pair did go hugging together once.
“I try to hug people others wouldn’t. I hug people I disagree with,” Park said. “[Weinstein] and I both know hugs are therapeutic.”
Weinstein, too, said she does not discriminate when she offers hugs. All people are deserving, she said.
“When I hug people, … I don’t know what their politics are. I don’t know what their religion is,” Weinstein said. “I hug all ages, people from all over the world.”
Once, after a man in a Darth Vader costume extended his arms to her, Weinstein went in for the clinch, commenting, “Even bad guys need hugs.” Through his mask the man replied, “We need them more than anybody.”
Frank Farley, professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, says hugs are examples of “micro-affections” — small acts of social kindness. Touch from a stranger could possibly have a very small impact on “the widespread reported loneliness of our times, a potentially toxic condition with connections to poor health outcomes.”
At the very least, a hug can’t hurt.
“Some good might be that ineffable feeling of positive human connection, and perhaps delight at the novelty, if you've not done this ‘free hug’ thing before,” Farley said.
Handheld signs are important in the hugging game. Sylvester said some people might be intimidated when they first see him, but his sign — “Hello, my name is Big Dave #BigDaveHugsTheWorld” — provides a quick introduction.
“You have to lead with a smile,” he said. Hugging, he said, “doesn’t necessarily pay well, but it pays in enriching your life.”
Still, a sign isn’t useful if people don’t read it, as Sylvester learned when he visited Twitter headquarters in California to offer hugs and high-fives. For 20 minutes, people walked past him, heads down, focusing on their phones. So he moved on.
“A hug is the original form of social media,” Sylvester said.
Weinstein’s sign features a drawing of a heart with open arms and identifies her as a “Hug Mobster, armed with love.” That’s the name friends used to describe her and the group she brought to 30th Street Station on Valentine’s Day 2004, a few months before her heart attack prompted her to begin hugging with a purpose.
Nonetheless, some people decline Weinstein’s offer of a hug, which prompts her to offer fist bumps, handshakes, and high-fives. If even that level of touch is too much for someone, Weinstein will wrap her arms around her own body and squeeze to share a virtual hug. If people are in a group, she will encourage them to hug each other.
Ruth Anne Wood, one of the original “Hug Mobsters," said she admires Weinstein’s commitment. She and her husband, Jason, have joined her on multiple hugging missions.
“It takes people out of their own little world. It breaks down stranger danger,” said Wood, 44, of Doylestown. “When you receive a hug — from a friend or family member or a stranger — it can change the whole mood of the day.”
Weinstein has no plans to stop hugging any time soon. She believes they can bring people together, figuratively as well as literally. During one hug mission to South Street, she offered an embrace to a woman in a hijab. The woman replied, “Who wouldn’t want a hug?” then added, “Even those that say they don’t want one, they need one.”
“If only people that hate or fear folks of different religions from different cultures and countries could see this beautiful woman and hear her,” Weinstein said. “When you hug, you’re heart to heart.”