The Brain on Love: The science of relationships and happiness
My parents met their sophomore year of college at Olivet Nazarene University. Despite busy class schedules, athletic commitments, and very different social circles, they managed to continue dating until March 21, 1994 when my dad got down on one knee and proposed. Twenty-two years later they are still together and have never been happier.
With the divorce rate in our country currently at 50%, I began to wonder how my parents have stayed together for so long. Is there something fundamentally different about couples that stay together versus relationships that crumble with time? How could they still be so happy after over twenty years?
Love Over Time
Relationships and happiness are two concepts that often (hopefully) go hand in hand. Having a partner to support you is arguably one of the most enjoyable experiences in life. As someone who is currently in a long-term relationship, I can attest that the amount of happiness you feel tends to fluctuate. Despite what Hallmark would like its viewers to believe, not every relationship is a fairytale where nothing bad ever happens.
However, for the most part, one should feel happy in a relationship, otherwise what's the point? I can say with confidence that I am very much in love with my boyfriend however it's a choice every day to keep loving him, especially when he’s too sarcastic for his own good. I believe that our relationship has actually improved over time, and luckily science seems to agree with me.
As researchers Claire Kamp and Paul Amato1discuss in their article “Consequence of Relationship Status and Quality for Subjective Well-Being,” with time comes commitment. Subjects in the study were segregated into groups based on relationship status such as casual dating, cohabitating, married, and single. After extensive self-report questionnaires, researchers concluded that as time goes on, and the relationship gets more serious, so does the amount of happiness for both partners. My boyfriend and I have been dating long enough to know that there are times where we get on the other’s nerves but we make the conscious choice to keep loving the other because in the long run, no one makes me happier.
Eighty Years Later
Now armed with the knowledge that relationships can improve mental well-being with time, I began to wonder if love can affect physical well-being as well. Since being healthy is directly related to increased levels of positive affect, it seemed logical to conclude that if love can enrich one’s physical condition, then one’s happiness would stand to improve as well. Harvard Professor Robert Waldinger2 answers this very question in one of history’s longest research studies ever conducted, tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938. After following the men for nearly 80 years, the researchers concluded that relationships do in fact have a powerful influence over our health and aging. The data show that those with strong relationships experienced less mental deterioration with age as compared to the control group. Waldinger concluded his report stating “the people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
The Biology of Love
Now that we know that love is long lasting, how does one fall in love in the first place? What goes on in the brain when it’s in love? According to biologist Dawn Maslar3, men and women tend to fall in love at different times due to the presence of distinct neurotransmitters, specifically oxytocin in women and vasopressin in men. In a study, she analyzed on prairie voles (another monogamous mammal) the data showed that for women, levels of oxytocin shot up at orgasm and for men, vasopressin takes time to increase naturally as receptors build up and commitment increases. Maslar concluded her research saying that women tend to fall in love after sex whereas men tend to experience these “love feelings” after time and as commitment intensifies.
The biological perspective on love seems very cold and clinical to the outside observer. Can love really be broken down into a few hormones being activated in the brain? Is love simply an unnecessary consequence of our biological need to pass on our genes? To answer this question, I looked at two separate studies regarding happiness and sexual satisfaction in both fertile4and infertile5populations. This distinction is interesting because it helps to eliminate the cofounding variable of our evolutionary need to continue our genetic lineage. Both studies depicted that sexual satisfaction was an important factor in positive affect for both groups, thus ruling out evolutionary factors as a possible confounding variable.
If there is anything that I have learned from observing my parent’s relationship, it is to take risks, and fall in love, because it might just be the healthiest thing you could ever do.
1Dush, Claire M. Kamp, and Paul R Amato. “Consequences of Relationship Status and Quality for Subjective Well-Being.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 22, no. 5, 2005, pp. 607–627.
2TED. “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study onhappiness/ Robert Waldinger.” YouTube, 25 Jan. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watchv=8KkKuTCFvzI.
3TEDxTalks. “How Your Brain Falls In Love/ Dawn Maslar/ TEDxBocaRaton.” YouTube, 5 Jul. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyq2Wo4eUDg.
4Fisher, William A, et al. “Individual and Partner Correlates of Sexual Satisfaction and Relationship Happiness in Midlife Couples: Dyadic Analysis of the International Survey of Relationships.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 44, no. 6, 2015, p. 1609., doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0426-8.
5Forooshany, Seyed, et al. “Infertile Individuals' Marital Relationship Status, Happiness, and Mental Health: A Causal Model.” International Journal of Fertility and Sterility, vol. 8, no. 3, 2014, pp. 315–324.
© 2018 Easton B