Hugs are a universal sign of goodwill and intimacy. From our earliest days, we associate hugs with love and affection. Now, scientists are learning that hugs don’t just feel good, they actually do good.

Over the last two decades, several teams of researchers have studied the effects of hugs and other forms of warm physical contact. Their results show a number of immediate benefits along with larger positive implications for overall health. Here are three reasons to reach out and hug somebody.

1. Hugs seem to provide protection from the common cold.

A 1991 study from The New England Journal of Medicine dosed 394 people with virus-laden nasal drops (26 additional people received saline drops as a placebo). The results showed that people who had more psychological stress were more likely to develop colds. The landmark study proved that emotional well-being played a role in the immune system.

Later studies have shown that frequent hugs can reduce psychological stress and protect people against colds. Sheldon Cohen, the lead author of several Carnegie Mellon University studies, says that hugging increases our perceived social support. The physical contact of the hug or the display of intimacy may explain the protective effect. “Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection,” he said.

2. A 20-second hug may provide additional benefits.

A substantial percentage of the population considers a 20-second hug about 19 seconds too long. But if you’re a quick hugger, you may be missing the health benefits of the embrace.

Several studies have shown that a 20-second hug offers important health benefits. A University of North Carolina study showed that a long hug before public speaking reduced a person’s blood pressure and kept their heart rate lower than those who had no contact.

There are ample studies showing that “warm partner contact” reduces blood pressure and increases oxytocin. Scientists sometimes call oxytocin the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone” because the body releases it while snuggling, cuddling, or otherwise making physical contact. Increased levels of the hormone can reduce stress and promote growth and healing.

3. Hugs lead to emotional, physical, and cognitive improvements.

Sadly, researchers realized the importance of hugging children by observing developmental problems in children raised in orphanages. A University of Wisconsin study showed that children adopted after spending one year in a Romanian orphanage had lower levels of important bonding hormones when compared to children who had grown up in a typical household their entire life.

This study along with many others show the benefits of making physical contact with your child. We’ve come a long way since Dr. John B. Watson gave this terrible advice in regards to physical contact and children in 1928:

“Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job on a difficult task.”

Modern research is clear—don’t follow Dr. Watson’s advice.

As research on hugging continues, we’ll learn more about how hugs boost certain hormones and reduce stress-related symptoms. For the time being, we can safely say that adding hugs to your life can make you healthier and happier. What other fun, 20-second activity can make such a claim?