The Original Free Hugs Guy Teaches You What to Do When Your Life Falls Apart

Tim Denning

Tap into your humanity.

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Image Credit: Juan Mann

Looking at my girlfriend, while both plugged into the Matrix, wearing noise-canceling headphones, we use hand waving as a form of communication.This is the reality Juan Mann from Sydney, Australia fought against.

Juan waged war against social media company Myspace — love versus Tom from Myspace. In 2004 Juan’s life fell apart. He watched his parents get divorced which devastated him. Then his fiancé broke off their engagement. It felt like love had exited through the trapdoor of his life.“I spent months living alone in a remote part of Australia, avoiding human contact where possible,” he says.

“My life had fallen apart and I had nothing left to lose.”Upon returning from his holiday in isolation (a reality we all now know well), he arrived back on the busy streets of Sydney. At a social event he attended to reconnect with society, a stranger came up and hugged him.

For a few seconds, he didn’t feel so bad anymore. Hugs can make you feel better he thought.Juan headed out into the Sydney streets to give what he got so generously from a stranger. He stood in the street with a sign that read FREE HUGS. “I thought that if I could offer Free Hugs, then I could do anything.”Everything was going well. Then the police came and shut him down. He could no longer give out free hugs.

Free hugs, strangely, became illegal. Using the good old fashion power of a petition, Juan rebelled. He collected 10,000 signatures from people demanding free hugs become lawful again. Love won.Juan’s friend Shimon Moore quietly filmed the early days of free hugs, the petition, and the demonstration of hug freedom.

15 years ago the video was uploaded to an up-and-coming website called Youtube. 78 million people watched the power of free hugs and shared their messages below the video. Here’s what you can learn.

A single person who notices you changes everything.

When I got fired from my job, I felt like Juan — I felt like my life had fallen apart. Quietly, all I wanted was one person to notice me. Nobody did.Until an old work colleague offered me a desk in his office so I wouldn’t be stuck at home feeling sorry for myself. His kindness changed my reality.

This is what the free hugs movement did: it made people feel noticed. When you feel noticed you feel like you exist.While working in homeless shelters I noticed that many of the people I met were ignored. They would sit in the street and pray for mercy. They would spend the day on their knees begging for money.

The soul-crushing part of their reality is that their fellow humans would walk right past them and say nothing, as if they were invisible.Feeling invisible became their greatest struggle. Giving out free hugs helps people feel seen again.

You can make an enormous impact without spending a single dollar.

This is the brilliance of the free hugs movement. When my life fell apart due to mental illness, I did everything to buy my way out of it. I drank alcohol like Duff Man. I bought stupid material possessions. I got dressed up in a business suit full of fakeness, hoping to feel like a powerful leader. None of it worked.Finding free stuff to heal your pain is a gift. Hugs are a reminder that the best things in life are free. You can’t buy your way to happiness. You can hug your way there, though.

“It wasn’t a Christian thing or a color thing or a cultural thing in one country. Everyone likes a hug no matter what, no matter how broken you are.” — Shimon Moore

Flow states compound acts of humanity further.

The filmmaker Shimon Moore edited the free hugs video for Juan. He said in one interview, “I did it in one night. It was just really flowing.” What he’s describing is a flow state.

The state of mind where love, peace, tranquility, and the best work of your life pour out of you — where your capacity to create change happens quietly during the muse brought on by a flow state.Flow states are linked to experiences that occur after your life falls apart. Go from rock bottom to a series of flow states, and you’ll create and work towards your own free hugs idea.

Your silly idea can become a movement.

“As the days passed, more volunteers with their own handwritten signs came and stood alongside him.” — Elizabeth Day

The free hugs phenomenon started with one person. It didn’t spread to hundreds of people every day. Like all magic, it spread slowly. When your life falls apart you can choose to start a tiny movement. You can take your sadness or an injustice and turn it into an immortal moment you and others will remember for the rest of your life.

A movement I love is the one an American kid started. He had leukemia and had a goal to be Batman for a day. With the help of Twitter, his tiny dream became true.

Thousands of people all over the world flooded the streets of San Francisco to let him live out his little hero moment, which became the best feel-good moment of the last decade.A documentary called Batkid Begins captured the movement the boy created. The best line from the film is this: “In helping him live this dream we were saving ourselves.”Don’t underestimate the power of a movement without money behind it.

It may have been a long time between hugs.

‘I hugged an older man a while back whose wife had died 14 years ago and he hadn’t been hugged in all that time,’ she recalls, looking distinctly misty-eyed. He stood talking for ages about how he’d not been held or touched and how it made him feel better that I had… When people turn round and say: ‘Thank you, I really needed that,’ it makes me want to cry.

That’s what Juan did. He helped people whose lives had fallen apart long ago, end the drought of long-lost hugs. A free hug says “you’ll be okay.”You never know what a person is going through behind the scenes. You never know what they’re missing. But you can be sure that showing an act of humanity is a great place to start.

You live in the age desperate for free hugs.

A pandemic forcing humans into self-induced isolation has created an opportunity. Now more than ever we need people like Juan to bring back the free hug movement. The emptiness of a zoom call is nothing like the intimacy of a real-world hug you’ve been missing and didn’t even realize.The best free huggers are quiet people. A hug speaks louder than words.

Elon Musk decoded the free hugs movement.

You might think this free hugs talk is getting all too touchy-feely — a touch too soft, maybe? Two blokey blokes named Joe Rogan and Elon Musk got in a room. They explained the free hugs movement.

Elon: This may sound corny, but love is the answer. Joe: It is the answer. It is. It sounds corny because we’re all scared…if we could all just relax and love each other. Elon: It wouldn’t hurt to have more love in the world.

Where is the free hugs founder now?

When a person changes the world in a huge way without intending to, often, it can become all too much.Look at the founder of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. He vanished from the internet in 2011 without a trace.

Nobody is even sure of his real identity. He created a movement so profound that he couldn’t bear to stick around and be the voice of money any longer.The same happened with Juan. After the free hugs movement he mostly disappeared from the spotlight. In 2012 reporter Elizabeth Day tries to contact Juan via his website, Twitter and Facebook, unsuccessfully.

She tries to call his friends and they admit they haven’t spoken to him in a long time. A few of his friends say he “flipped out” and joined a random surfing community in the middle of nowhere.In 2020 he resurfaces and offers to help people through the loneliness of isolation.

The work appears to be targeted towards 1–1 interactions rather than public displays of free hugs in front of thousands of people on Youtube.That’s the thing about mass attention (fame): it makes you go into hiding so you can remember why you started working on your idea in the first place. For Juan it was two words: free hugs.An idea that taps into your human nature saves you when your life falls apart.

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Aussie Blogger with 100M+ views — Writer for CNBC & Business Insider. Inspiring the world through Personal Development and Entrepreneurship www.timdenning.com

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