UK to announce we can hug our friends again

Four famous embraces: “Hugs are the universal medicine.”

Is a simple hug the greatest expression of love? Today Boris Johnson is set to announce that for the first time since March 2020 hugging friends and family can return from next Monday.

It won’t be the only announcement at the Downing Street briefing this evening, but for many it will be the most meaningful. After 14 long months in the UK of keeping our distance, of elbow bumps and awkward waves, the good old hug is back.

The origins of the word hug are unknown, but two theories exist. The first is that the verb "hug" (first used in the 1560s) could be related to the Old Norse word hugga, which meant to comfort.

The second theory is that the word is related to the German word hegen, which means to foster or cherish, and originally meant to enclose with a hedge.

Why is it so important? Psychologists believe it is because hugging has become the leading expression of friendship, as opposed to romantic love.

And friendship is increasingly thought to be the experience that makes humans feel happiest.

This reflects big changes to the way we live our lives. Fewer people are living with a partner and those getting married are doing so later than ever. Friends have replaced family and spouses as the focus of many people’s lives.

This is not a new idea. Aristotle thought friendship was one of the true joys of life, advising people to seek lasting and meaningful relationships. What Pheobe in the American sitcom Friends calls a BFF. In other words, reliable and committed friends who stick by you through tough times.

But this is hardly inspiring, compared to the passionate throes of romantic love. In literature, we crave stories of true love, not comfortable companionship. From Shakespeare’s star-cross'd lovers to Connell and Marianne in Normal People. We are enthralled even when the story does not end happily ever after.

However, the science agrees with Aristotle, according to writer Arthur C Brooks. The Harvard Study of Adult Development finds that you are most likely to be healthy and happy at 80 if you have stable relationships when you are 50 and where your partner is also your best friend.

This may be why some best friends are choosing a platonic marriage, taking vows and exchanging rings, to commit to friendship for life. Like Jay Guercio, who married her friend Krystle Purificato last year, saying: “I want her to continue to be my best friend and my life partner.”

And newly-wed BFFs can look to other literary examples of friendship for inspiration, whether it is Harry, Ron and Hermonie from Harry Potter or Frodo and Sam from Lord of the Rings.

But for the famous literary critic Harold Bloom, the finest friendship in literature was between the knight Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza. They listen to each other, point out their mistakes but defend them loyally against the attacks of others.

So Is a simple hug the greatest expression of love?

A friend indeed

Some say no. Friendship is no substitute for the intoxicating mix of desire, exhilaration and fulfillment of falling in love. Friends may be useful and supportive, but there is something about love that goes beyond our logical and basic needs. It is responsible for the world’s greatest works of art and literature and without it life would be predictable and dull.

Others say yes. A good partner is also a good friend and it is friendship that holds all lasting relationships together. It does not require physical attraction, shared values or dependence on others. So friendship can flourish anywhere – even between former enemies. Many people live happily without romantic partners, but it is impossible to be happy without friends.

You Decide

  1. Would you marry your best friend?
  2. Do you need to know someone in real life to be true friends?


  1. Your school has set up a new app to help people make friends. In pairs, write your partner’s profile to show their best qualities. You can use a maximum of 40 words.
  2. The show Friends needs updating. In groups of six, create a sitcom for 2021 with six friends living together. Assign roles and then, in character, introduce yourselves to the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922), French novelist.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that behaviour around romance and marriage has changed significantly in the last 50 years. Since 1972, the number of opposite-sex marriages in the UK has fallen by 45% whilst the average age of marriage has increased by 11 years. In the United States, 61% of adults under 35 are not living with a partner and 51% have no steady partner. This is a significant rise from a decade ago.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is how many friends we need and how many it is possible to have. Whilst on social media there is no upper limit, anthropologist Robin Dunbar calculated that the human brain can maintain only about 150 relationships. However, Dunbar says no more than five of these make up our closest circle. Some argue one is enough – their partner. But research in 2007 showed married people with at least one additional friend were happier than those with no friends outside their marriage.

Word Watch

The ancient Greek philosopher wrote that there were short-lived friendships based on shared activities and lasting friendships based on valuing the other person.
The character popularised the acronym “best friends forever” in a 1997 episode of Friends.
Star-cross'd lovers
The phrase coined by William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet can be used for many famous love stories, including the medieval tragedy Tristan and Iseult and the Arabian love story of Layla and Majnun.
Normal People
The 2018 bestselling novel by Sally Rooney is celebrated for its realistic portrayal of love and relationships.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development
A scientific survey that has tracked the health and mental wellbeing of 724 men over more than 80 years.
A close nonsexual relationship. The term is derived from the Greek philosopher Plato, who discusses different types of love in his philosophical text The Symposium.
Don Quixote
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes was published in 1605 and is considered the first modern European novel.


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