There seems to be something a bit futile in the scientific study of in human relationships. Countless very smart people bring real scientific rigour to bear on the subject, but often attain no more insight than the average pop song or episode of Oprah.

This week’s example: A study out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published in the June issue of Personal Relationships, suggests the key to happy coupledom may be simple gratitude.

Researchers studied 67 couples who had been together for at least three months and had each partner keep a nightly diary for two weeks, detailing favours they did for the other, as well as favours the other did for them along with their emotional responses.


These being real couples, the kindnesses that participants recorded went undetected almost half the time, but when they actually noticed and felt gratitude, there was a strong correlation with feelings of connectedness.

So there you go. Be nice to each other, don’t take each other’s niceness for granted and everything should be, uh, nice.

It may sound like the latest findings from the Centre for the Study of the Crashingly Obvious, but much of the research into relationships is aimed either at proving or disproving the folk wisdom we’ve been relying on for generations to keep the peace between us.

And this is far from the first study linking gratitude to a stronger relationship, and to happiness in general, a condition that seems most easily achieved by those who are in the habit of counting their blessings.

The researchers made a distinction between actual feelings of gratitude and a mere sense of indebtedness or obligation, which, while it will serve to keep a couple together, doesn’t form the same Krazy Glue emotional bond between them.

The kindnesses, this study found, didn’t have to be over-the-top: “Events such as one partner planning a celebratory meal when the other partner gets a promotion, taking the children to the zoo so the other partner can have some quiet time, or stopping to pick up the other partner’s favourite coffee are each benefits to the recipient.”

The glow from such small gestures, the study’s authors said, lasted up to a day afterwards, and both partners benefited.

While these findings may not comprise an Earth-shaking development in relationship science, they are nonetheless heartening. Instead of racking your brain to find the perfect romantic gesture, it seems, you can do each other a lot of good with accumulated, habitual little kindnesses — and you could start right now.

Steve Collins offers his best guesses on relationships for Metro every two weeks.

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