How does imagining a hot, cheesy pizza make you feel? Probably starving. But in the most millennial science experiment ever, it has been shown that looking at pizza and puppies can also make you feel more in love with your partner.
The results might sound like click bait, but they’re based in established relationship psychology—and were borne of a very honorable mission.
Researchers, led by James K. McNulty of Florida State University, designed the study through a grant from the Department of Defense—they originally set out to find a quick fix for the intense stress that couples separated by military deployment can experience, according to ScienceDaily. An analysis of U.S. Census data by Zippia showed that, when divorce rates were broken down by industry, military personnel are most likely to be divorced by age 30 than any other workers.
What the researchers found surprised even themselves: When participants in the study were shown a photo of their partner paired with a photo of a fluffy puppy or bunny, or a delicious food like pizza, and the word “wonderful,” they reported feeling more positively about their partner and happier in their relationship over time.
The participating couples were all under the age of 40 and had been married for less than five years. They looked at the researchers’ photo stream once every three days for six weeks (there were other images mixed in with the ones of their spouse and the cute animals and delicious food). During the course of the study each participant wrote about how they felt about their relationship every two weeks for eight weeks.
The participants who had seen photos of their partners associated with positive images and words reported feeling more in love over the course of the study. (Some participants saw images of their partner paired with neutral images, like one of a button—these folks didn’t experience the same positive effects.)
We catch positive feelings for things for irrational reasons all the time. You might be a religious Herbal Essences user to this day because the smell brings back happy teenage memories. I still love melted Velveeta because it reminds me of watching movies with my family on Saturday nights growing up, when it was the main dish on offer. And listening to First Aid Kit makes me think of young love. These associations don’t make any logical sense, they just are.
This well-established concept of gut-based, Pavlovian response can be harnessed to strengthen relationships. Associating your partner with positive things can be a lot easier than trying to change troublesome behaviors.
Especially when relationships hit rocky points, stepping back and re-associating your other half with new, exciting and happy experiences—like taking a weekend camping trip or even something as simple as going to the movies on a weeknight—can be just the jostle you need to get things back on track. By doing this, you’re actually training your brain to associate your person with happiness. It takes practice, though. Remember that the study participants were looking at these positive associations every three days over the course of many weeks.
The findings are good news for long distance couples especially. It’s important to share happy experiences to associate with your relationship, even if you’re not in the same place. Setting aside time for long-distance “dates” (check out these insights on long distance dating for specifics) can help you two stay connected and positive, even when things get tough.