Oxytocin has been nicknamed the “love hormone” because it is typically associated with good feelings and emotions. That is an oversimplified description of this hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain.
Oxytocin plays a complex role in our bodies, and appears to be connected to (but not limited to) human emotions, childbirth, breastfeeding, recognition and bonding. The positive effects of increased levels of oxytocin are many and include greater relaxation, more willingness to trust others, and general psychological stability. The hormone also appears to help reduce stress and anxiety. All in all, a good hormone to have around!
So how can we increase our levels of oxytocin? Hugging, touching, and intimacy are all known to increase this hormone’s levels. But there are other ways as well. A February 2019 study titled “Examining Couple Recreation and Oxytocin Via the Ecology of Family Experiences Framework” was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family and found that when couples play board games or take a painting class together, their bodies release oxytocin. Surprisingly, the study also noted that men painters released twice as much or more oxytocin than women painters and couples playing games.
Researcher Karen Melton, Ph.D., assistant professor of child and family studies in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, said:
“We were expecting the opposite — 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… Typically, an art class is not seen as an interactive date 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.’”
Indeed, researchers expected that painting couples would be more attentive to the instructor and to the canvas than to their partners, but instead they found that couples in the art class reported more partner-touching than couples playing board games.
The study is the first to examine how distinct types of leisure are associated with oxytocin release, researchers said. They also noted that this study differs from other studies on oxytocin levels because in other studies participants were asked to perform specific actions such as cuddling, hand-holding or massage, sometimes for an assigned period. The physical interactions in this study took place naturally and were brief.
“Our big finding was that all couples release oxytocin when playing together — and that’s good news for couples’ relationships,” Melton said. “But men in the art class released 2 to 2.5 times more oxytocin than the other groups. This suggests that some types of activities may be more beneficial to males than females, and vice versa.”
Another interesting study finding was that couples involved in an unfamiliar setting and new activity released more oxytocin than those in a familiar home-like environment. This suggests that novelty can actually be an important factor when planning date nights. The researchers hope to expand on this topic in future research to determine what role the environment might have in oxytocin release.
In reference to the study, Dr. Melton notes: “This has implications for the everyday family – to find those small, meaningful ways to interact when they’re eating dinner together or going for a walk or doing homework with a child or sitting on their couches with their iPad.”
This interesting study is confirmation of what so many of us already know. We all benefit, and feel good, when we spend quality time with our spouses and families.