The Secret to Happiness in Your Relationship May Be a Smile

Posted on June 16, 2015

It turns out that positive emotions do more than provide psychological comfort. According to University College of London’s Sophie K. Scott and colleagues (2014), “Laughter is one of the positive emotional expressions which are expressly linked to a physiological reduction in the stressful reactions to negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger, disgust), in a way which may be more effective than other ways of managing negative emotions” (pp. 619-620). In other words, laughing helps your body as well as your mind.

One of the pieces of evidence that Scott and her team used to bolster their argument came from a long-term study of middle-aged and older married couples focusing on the more general benefits to the relationship of being able to manage emotions. Called, appropriately, emotion regulation, this is the ability to make yourself feel better when you feel bad. If you’re capable of emotion regulation, you can put the brakes on such negative emotions as anger, frustration, and hostility. At the same time, you can also keep humorous reactions in bounds, gauging them to the situation as appropriate (unlike the “class clown”).

Stanford University psychologist Lian Bloch and collaborators (2014) used data from a 13-year study of heterosexual marriages among middle-aged and older couples to examine whether the ones who used the process of “downregulating” negative emotion (i.e. getting themselves to feel better) would be better able to cope when faced with relationship strife. The researchers were able to take advantage of the longitudinal nature of the study by examining the predictive power of negative downregulation at the first assessment on marital satisfaction over the course of the 13 years of the study.

In a long-term study such as this, you could argue from the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” perspective that the same quality that allows couples to regulate negative emotions at one point in time allows them to feel more satisfied with each other. Only a true experiment could rule out this possibility. However, because earlier scores were being used statistically to predict later outcomes, there’s also a strong case to be made for a directional arrow from downregulation at one point in time to marital satisfaction in the following years.

On each testing occasion, the Stanford study involved having married couples participate in a lab session in which they spent 15 minutes each talking about events of the day, a topic of continued disagreement, and a pleasant topic or something they enjoyed doing together. Their physiological reactions were monitored at the same time, and participants also rated their emotions during these encounters. Participants also rated the quality of their own conflict resolution, and whether it was constructive or destructive in nature.

We know from this study, then, that regulating negative emotions (by wives in particular) is helpful in maintaining relationship bonds. How do the findings relate to the sharing of positive emotions? Were couples benefited at all by focusing on an enjoyable, mutual activity? Berkeley psychologist Joyce Yuan and colleagues (2010), using the same married couples in the Bloch et al research, found that couples who experienced positive emotions were better able to calm themselves physiologically as well. Positive emotions, in short, “have the capacity to ‘undo’ physiological arousal” (p. 471).

Laughter is certainly one of the strongest reactions we have to positive emotions. You may smile when you’re feeling good, but you’ll only laugh if something strikes you as out and out funny. Scott and her team noted that people laugh surprisingly often, perhaps as much as 5 times in a 10-minute conversation. These findings suggest that you may be able to control the emotional climate of your relationship by bringing laughter into it. At first, it might seem strange or forced, but over time, you may find that you and your partner actually find more to laugh about in common.

Category(s):Relationships & Marriage

Source material from Psychology Today