THE BUZZ 2: Hug It Out

By on July 20, 2016

Why placing the focus on human connection and compassion becomes more important in an increasingly violent world.

As more and more people seem at odds with each other, Heather DeVine is working to break down barriers with something as simple as an embrace. 

As more and more people seem at odds with each other, Heather DeVine is working to break down barriers with something as simple as an embrace.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – News of violence at home and abroad has been overwhelming. Police shootings of unarmed, innocent men; shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge; the terrorist attack in Nice. Images play repeatedly on the media, and even viewers far away are sucked into the trauma and horror.

The terror and violence takes a toll, even if we aren’t directly affected. Studies show that terrorists can increase rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety in people predisposed to those conditions. For people without mental health issues, the impact may result in malaise, helplessness, fear, and a generally dark view of the world.

When you’re feeling pessimistic, it may seem counterintuitive to do something like hug a stranger. But last Saturday, that’s just what Heather DeVine invited people to do.

At 9 a.m. Saturday morning, DeVine stood on the corner at the Farmer’s Market on the Town Square holding a sign. Stenciled in bright colors on her sign were the words “Free Hugs” in three languages, English, Spanish, and Chinese.

“Good morning,” she said to people passing by. Some looked at her quizzically. A few took her up on her sign’s offer. Then a few more. Quickly, the hugging became contagious.

“It was really beautiful,” DeVine said. “People were moved.”

DeVine, a graphic designer, founded People Spread Love six months ago in order to offer support to people facing adversity, whether from terrorism, illness or other difficulties. DeVine based her concept for People Spread Love on her experience responding to the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. She gathered signatures on sympathy cards for each of the nine victims’ families

Now DeVine hosts regular “Meet and Make” events where people create notes for individuals on DeVine’s “Love Request” list. People write to her via the organization’s website to request support for a loved one.

DeVine’s idea for the hug campaign was inspired by a video she watched of Brian Alvear, the brother of one of the Orlando Pulse night club shooting victims. Alvear dealt with his grief by going out on the streets and hugging people to prove that goodness still existed.

“I think, honestly, with everything that’s been going on in the world, it’s clear the world needs more love,” DeVine said.

Within an hour of DeVine’s arrival at the town square, several volunteers showed up, and before long they had formed a veritable hug production line. Volunteer Gregory Meyers had expected strangers to be uncomfortable with the idea of free hugs.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how willing and excited people were to give and receive hugs,” Meyers said.

“People gave really good hugs too,” he said. “Not many soggy noodles. Some of my favorite hugs were from the big tough guys. They are really good huggers.”

As the morning went on, DeVine said she and the volunteers became bolder about their outreach.

“Free hugs, no strings attached!” they called.

DeVine had specifically wanted to reach Chinese tourists and Latino community members – thus the three languages featured on the signs. Chinese passersby were particularly delighted by the hug invitation.

“They hugged us and wanted their picture taken with us,” she said.

DeVine estimates that she gave 300 hugs by the end of the day. Rather than feeling drained, she and her volunteers say they felt more energized and less stressed than before they arrived.

“A lot of times we feel so separate and alone,” DeVine said. “All this stuff in the media can be disheartening and you can feel isolated.”

It turns out science backs up DeVine’s hugging inclination. Hugging has been proven to reduce stress and lessen our chances of getting sick. It also lowers blood pressure. Oh, and it just feels good.

Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center executive director Deidre Ashley says that hugging reinforces positive thinking, and that’s good for mental health. According to Ashley the science behind cognitive behavioral therapy hinges on replacing negative thoughts with positive ones – and hugs, caring letters, and other gestures can help another person think positively.

Aside from her clinical perspective, Ashley also sees the benefits of the Free Hugs.

“So often we go about our day not seeing people as people,” she said. “The hugs are a way of challenging that and making people focus on other people in a very positive way.”

Ashley agreed. “I think there’s something very hopeful about being able to contribute. Doing something positive gives people a sense of accomplishment and a sense of control.”

“Looking at recent events, we tend to see people in a fearful way,” Ashley continued. “To have an experience where you can see another person as a human being maybe makes the world seem not so bad.”

The positive feelings were seemingly infectious Saturday at the Free Hug line. Meyers said the line of hug givers kept getting longer.

“Friends who stopped by to say ‘hi’ ended up joining in and becoming part of the hugging line,” he said. “Some folks who were just walking by picked up an extra sign and joined us. Even a couple local police officers joined in.”

“Don’t forget your love,” DeVine reminded one woman as she walked away from getting a hug. The woman looked around, thinking she had dropped something. She looked back and realized what DeVine had said.

“What a nice take away,” the woman smiled. PJH

People Spread Love is hosting a “Meet and Make” love note making event 6:30 p.m., tonight (Wednesday) at Intenciones. For more info visit, or call 804.380.6728.

About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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