The Science of Surprise: How Doing the Unexpected Keeps You in Love

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skydive_weddingI once dated an incorrigible ladies’ man who liked to bring me to high places: the steep hillsides of Berkeley, CA overlooking the port at sunset; the ledge of a billboard on the roof of an abandoned building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; even the very top of Tree Nine, a legendary 120-foot redwood on the campus of UC Santa Cruz. Whether he knew it or not, these vertigo-inducing excursions were neuroscientifically designed to get me (and keep me) interested in him.

As we took in the views, my pulse was racing from the climb, I was breathing fast, and I was seeing everything around me, literally, from a new perspective. As it turns out, everything I was encountering–surprise, variety, novelty, and a hint of danger–bathes the brain in neurotransmitters called dopamine and norepinephrine, which are associated respectively with pleasure, pain and emotional response, and with alertness and arousal. Dopamine is the same chemical that’s affected by drugs like cocaine and amphetamines, while norepinephrine relates to the fight-or-flight response. In high amounts, therefore, dopamine and norepinephrine are associated with euphoria and intense sexual passion–in short, with the feelings of falling in love.

So what can we take away from this? Specifically, that a little bit of variety can be the spice of romance. When you first fall in love, just being around your partner offers huge dopamine hits, activating the brain’s reward systems and making you feel all fluttery. Unfortunately, in long-term relationships, humans are prone to something called “hedonic adaptation”–a fancy way of saying that we get bored. The same stimulus, repeated, offers less in the way of reward. The tenth bite of ice cream is not as tasty as the first, and the 40th time you go out to your old-standby Italian place for date night is not going to be as enrapturing as the first time you sipped Chianti and gazed into each others’ eyes.

You can trick your brain’s desire for newness, and bring a fresh jolt into your relationship, by doing the unexpected, and trying new things.

In a cruel twist of fate, hedonic adaptation occurs even more quickly with positive experiences than with negative ones, which is bad news for long-term love. For example, one study showed that the initial happiness boost from getting married lasts only two years. In the realm of sex, hedonic adaptation is tied to our evolutionary desire for sexual variety. When your sweetie becomes too “familiar”–literally, too much like family–they may seem less sexually attractive than someone new.

So are we all doomed to succumb to our nature and become bored with our true loves? Luckily, there’s a way out: You can trick your brain’s desire for newness, and thereby bring that fresh jolt of dopamine into your relationship, by doing the unexpected, and trying new things. Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook,  has done a series of studies on how pursuing novel experiences with your partner can be a path to recapture the excitement of early love.

In one study, Aron’s team assigned a group of middle-aged couples to spend 90 minutes together, once a week for ten weeks, doing an activity that they both agreed was either “pleasant” (playing cards with friends) or “exciting” (skiing or going to a concert.) The group assigned to have the “exciting” experiences rated their marriage as more satisfying than the “pleasant” groups. In a similar study done in the lab, one group of couples was asked to simply walk back and forth across a room, while a second group had to cross the room while tied together at the wrists and ankles with Velcro. The couples who faced the physical challenge showed a substantial increase in reported love and satisfaction in their relationship, and when asked to do a communications-based task, they related to each other more warmly.

“The simplest explanation is that doing things that are novel and challenging feels good and exciting and meaningful,” says Aron. “And if you do it with your partner, you associate those feelings with your partner.” Aron, by the way, collaborates with his wife, Elaine, also a psychologist, on this research. For the two of them, designing new experiments and waiting for the results provides a great source of novelty and challenge to their lives and their relationship.

Not everyone has the time, or the stomach, to compete on The Amazing Race or jump out of airplanes together. But this Valentine’s Day, anything that breaks up your normal routine–visiting a water park, say, or a bar trivia night, or even climbing a tree–could flood your brain with the feelings you had when you were first falling in love.

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.