You may want to branch out from dinner-and-a-movie. According to a new study, a different type of date night can bring couples closer together.
The research, which was recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, identified activities that spark the release of oxytocin, the so-called bonding hormone, when partners do them together: painting and playing board games.
“Oxytocin is dubbed the cuddle hormone — the love hormone — and that’s because it’s associated with romantic bonding. It’s not released throughout the day; it only is released when we stimulate it,” says study co-author Karen Melton, an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences at Baylor University. “We now know that participating in recreational activities does release oxytocin.”
Twenty married or cohabitating couples were involved in the study. All of them filled out an hour-long survey about family life, which was meant to trigger the release of oxytocin. Past research has found that even thinking about one’s partner can kickstart production of the hormone, and it did in this case, too.
Next, researchers randomly assigned half of the couples to play a familiar board game for an hour, while the others took a painting class. The researchers collected urine samples after both the survey and the activity to measure changes in oxytocin levels.
Oxytocin levels were elevated after both activities, rising from an average of 3.86 nanograms per milliliter of urine after the survey to an average of 4.88 nanograms after the activity. (It’s difficult to say how a specific increase translates in real life, but oxytocin is only released when there’s stimulation, so any increase is likely related to feelings of bonding, Melton says.) But one activity prompted a greater oxytocin release than the other.
Men in the painting group had by far the largest change in oxytocin levels, which rose by about three nanograms after the art class. The oxytocin levels of women who played board games and those in the painting class rose by less than one nanogram, and men who played board games actually experienced a slight dip in oxytocin, with an average decrease of about 0.4 nanograms.
Why was art class such an effective oxytocin catalyst, especially for men? Part of it may be due to the novelty of the activity, Melton says. But the biggest factor likely had nothing to do with painting.
The researchers noticed lots of people in the art class offering encouragement to their partner verbally and through touch, like putting an arm around the shoulder. Men have been shown to be particularly sensitive to physical contact, so touch likely boosted their oxytocin levels considerably, Melton says.
“Justifying small ways to make any activity one where we’re touching our partner, whether that’s touching of the arm or around the shoulder, [could be useful],” Melton says. “Maybe it’s the interaction of saying encouraging things and the touch that are happening at the same time.”
Melton adds that the results don’t mean that board games are zapping men’s oxytocin — just that they likely didn’t trigger as great an oxytocin release as the family-life survey did. Men’s oxytocin concentrations after playing board games were still likely higher than they would have been without anything to boost production, she says.
While the study looked only at painting and board games, and thus couldn’t draw conclusions about other activities, it’s possible that other dates that involve the same things — physical touch, social interaction, novelty and partner encouragement — could achieve similar results. More research is needed to say for sure.
“This is the first study of its type to look at these types of behaviors and the release of oxytocin in the natural environment,” Melton says. “We need to spend some more time [studying], when do we see these spikes?”