Couples might be surprised to learn what effect attending an art class or playing board games might have on their relationship.
A recent study from Baylor University in Waco, TX, has revealed that romantic partners release oxytocin, the so-called love or hugging hormone, when they spend time together in these recreational activities.
What most surprised the researchers, however, was that the highest rise in hormone levels occurred in men who attended the painting class.
The rise in oxytocin in the paintbrush-wielding men was at least double that of the others.
The Journal of Marriage and Family has now published a paper on the findings.
Commenting on the effects of the two kinds of activity on oxytocin levels, first and corresponding study author Karen Melton, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of child and family studies, says that they "were expecting the opposite."
They were anticipating, she explains, that "couples playing the board games would interact more because they were communicating about the games and strategies, or because they were competing, and with more interaction, they would release more oxytocin."
She and her colleagues believe that their study is the first to investigate how different types of recreational activity might impact levels of oxytocin.
Oxytocin and its various effects
Oxytocin is a hormone that the brain uses to carry messages between brain cells. It also releases the hormone into the bloodstream from where it can travel to other parts of the body.
From animal studies, scientists have learned that oxytocin plays a significant role in giving birth, stimulating milk in response to suckling, social behavior, and bonding, especially between mothers and infants and between mating partners.
Studies of humans have confirmed that forming attachments involves oxytocin. In addition, they have shown that the hormone can increase trust and has a calming effect on stress, anxiety, and fear.
There is also evidence to support the notion that raising people's oxytocin levels can help them recognize emotions in others more readily, and that it increases trust in already established relationships.
In contrast, other studies have shown that oxytocin does not always promote social cohesion. Some studies have demonstrated that the hormone is involved in gloating, envy, and in promoting non-cooperation with other groups, such as when protecting vulnerable members of one's own group.
Researchers investigating the role of oxytocin in adult human bonding also found that the hormone can act "like rose-colored glasses" on how individuals view the bonding behavior of their romantic partners toward themselves.
Date night: Board games or art class?
Dr. Melton and colleagues enrolled 20 couples aged between 25 and 40 years and randomly assigned them to go on one of two types of date: "couples art class" or "game night." Each activity lasted for about 1 hour.
Those couples who went on the game-night played cards, word games, chess, checkers, dominoes, puzzles, Monopoly, and other games. The setting was familiar and home-like, and the couples played the games on their own.
The couples assigned to the art class date attended a painting class for couples. There were two classes, each with five couples and the setting was a community art studio.
All the individuals completed a six-item questionnaire that asked them how familiar they were with the activities that they undertook. The survey also included questions about interactions with their partner, such as eye contact, touching, and communication.
All couples gave urine samples before and after their dates. From these, the researchers were able to measure whether or by how much the oxytocin levels had changed during the event.
The results revealed that oxytocin levels went up for all the couples. However, the rise in oxytocin in men in the painting class was 2 to 2.5 times higher than it was in other groups.
The group with the next highest rise in oxytocin was women who played games. After this it was women in the painting class, followed by men playing games. However, the differences between these three groups were very small.
"This suggests that some types of activities may be more beneficial to males than females, and vice versa," comments Dr. Melton.
Also, the survey suggested that those who did the art class touched their partners more frequently than those who played board games.
Novelty factor could be important too
Dr. Melton notes that art classes are not usually places where you might expect to interact with your partner.
"But sometimes, couples that were painting turned the activity into a bonding time by choosing to interact – putting an arm around their partner or simply saying, 'Good job,'" she adds.
The environment also appears to matter. The researchers found that if the setting and activity was novel to the couple, they released more oxytocin than those in a home-like, familiar setting.
This novelty factor might be worth considering for those planning a Valentine's date night.
"Our big finding was that all couples release oxytocin when playing together — and that's good news for couples' relationships."
Karen Melton, Ph.D.