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Stanford student gives free hugs during 12-hour hugging spree

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In an effort to spread the love, Vishesh Gupta ’16 hung a cardboard “Free Hugs” from his neck and went on a 12-hour hugging spree on campus last week. It was his small way of showing the Stanford community “the power that kindness can have” through these countless warm embraces.

“I was deeply inspired by my work with the ServiceSpace community, who are a group of awesome people doing experiments in kindness and generosity, and I wanted to bring that joy with me to campus,” said Gupta, who worked at the volunteer-run nonprofit this past summer. “Hugs-wise, it’s not an original idea; I’ve seen it done, and thought it would be cool if I did it here too.”

Since 2006, free hugs have been given spontaneously to fight discrimination against people living with AIDS, to break the World Guinness Record for the “Most People Hugging Each Other,” and quite simply, to brighten people’s days. For Gupta, it was a brief day-long experiment with “pure” intentions.

“I thought that we could all use more happiness in our lives,” said Gupta. “It can be like a pressure cooker sometimes… For me, I can be very busy. I can be very in my own zone and these are my small ways of being aware of other people.”

As Gupta experienced, reactions varied — ranging from enthusiastic cuddles to one very blunt inquiry, “Did you lose a bet?”

Some were quick to approach him, his arms wide open, while others shied away, avoiding any direct eye contact. Many strangers simply smiled, which, Gupta explained, was just as meaningful.

“It just goes to show how many people there are that we don’t actually connect with,”  said Gupta. “That means I’m selectively seeing only my friends. I feel like [Tuesday], I went around seeing everyone and made eye contact with them to see if they wanted to give me a hug. I ended up meeting a lot of people I didn’t know.”

But it’s not about the amount of hugs given or the number of new people met, he stressed. Keeping a running tally is less worthwhile than being fully present with other people.

“Every hug is important,” Gupta said. “I feel like even if I went [on Tuesday] and gave one hug the entire day, that would have been as successful as me giving 100 hugs a day… The important thing is the intention, not the action. It’s important to do the right thing for the right person, but also if you’re coming with the right intention, that’s when it’s valuable.”

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