The Mindful Self-Express

The mind-body experiment.

Five Things You Need to Know to Succeed at Love and Dating

Science holds the key to winning the dating game.

Although love sometimes acts in mysterious ways, research can help us learn its secrets and become a more attractive love prospect. Love is a multifaceted mixture of biochemistry, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Yet science shows simple rules you can follow for love success. In addition to the predictable factor of physical attractiveness, being open, confident, engaged, and positive makes us more desirable to potential partners. Below are five science-based factors that can enhance your prospects of finding and keeping a love connection.

Physical Appearance and Body Type

Although it isn’t fair, studies show the chances of getting a second date or having an online prospect respond to your profile are heavily influenced by physical attractiveness. Physical attractiveness seems to convey a “halo effect” in which we aassume the person will be more successful, sexy, interesting, and fun. The effects of physical attractiveness are strongest when we have limited opportunity to get to know the person at a deeper level.

Studies show that men are more attracted to women with smaller waist to hip ratios, in other words, those who have more hourglass figures. Low waist-to-hip ratio is a sign of health, youth, and fertility, since our bellies expand with stress and age. This effect is relatively independent of overall weight, which means we don’t have to be skinny to find love. We also find symmetrical faces more attractive. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of celebrity brow shapers in Hollywood.

Hormones and Brain Chemicals

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and her colleague explain the chemical basis of love in a three-stage model.

Not surprisingly, the early stage of attraction, known as the Lust Stage is governed by release of testosterone and estrogen. At this stage, attraction is relatively indiscriminate, increasing the chances of finding many attractive mates. In the next stage, lust turns to attraction, in which our brains become more fixated on a particular person.

In the Attraction Stage, our brains release a bunch of chemicals designed to focus our attention on the beloved and make us want to spend lots of time with them. Dopamine release creates increased motivation and craving for reward. The stress hormone cortisol suppresses our appetite and need for sleep so we can devote more energy to bonding with our loved one.  Decreases in serotonin may make us more obsessed with one we love. In one study, serotonin levels in men who were recently in love were as low as in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another study showed that women in love had increased serotonin while men had decreases.

In the final stage, known as Attachment, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin promote long-term bonding with our partner. Both of these hormones are released during or after sexual intercourse, which may explain why sex is linked to couples' closeness and long-term satisfaction.

Getting on the Same Wavelength

Both men and women are attracted to people whom they perceive as being on the same wavelength. In one 2009 study of speed daters, researcher Nicholas Gueguen trained women to mimic the nonverbal gestures and words of some male partners and not others. For example, if the partner touched their arm, they were instructed to touch his arm a few minutes later. When women mimicked their partners, partners were more likely to want to give them their contact information, and to rate them as more sexually attractive. Research by Dr. Daniel Siegel highlights the importance of attunement and resonance in attachment and relational closeness. We are attracted to people who “dance together with us,” psychologically speaking.

In another study, a researcher asked students to rate the attractiveness of different faces. He secretly took photos of subjects’ faces and morphed them with some of the computerized facial pictures. These pictures that were most similar to the subjects’ own features were consistently rated as most attractive. The researchers suggested that our own faces reflect characteristics of our parents’ faces, which are the focus of our early attachment.

Availability and Openness

Nobody wants to be rejected, which is why we are more attracted to people who communicate openness, willingness to engage and be vulnerable, and liking for us. Researcher Art Aron from Stony Brook University and his colleagues created closeness and romantic attraction among opposite-sex strangers in 90 minutes by having them ask each other a series of personally revealing questions, stare into each others eyes without speaking for two minutes, and regularly tell each other what they liked about each other. Effects were so strong for some couples that they actually dated and even married in real life. Aron’s first couple married six months later and invited the researchers to their wedding. 

Other studies show we are attracted to kind and friendly people and those who use open body language, such as sitting facing us directly, smiling, leaning in, and making eye contact. Closed or unengaged positions and gestures, such as looking away, checking cellphones, or crossing arms and hunching over are a turnoff.

Confidence and Curiosity

Lack of confidence is a common barrier to attracting potential partners. Anxiety makes us self-focused and hesitant, which gets in the way of engaging and attuning to our partners or sharing our own interests and views. Studies show men are more likely to ask out women whom they can envision a future with. This may mean being willing to fit into parts of the men's lives, either because of common interests or willingness to try new things. According to Aron’s theory of Self-Expansion, we look for partners who can expand our sense of self and help us become more competent and effective in life. Having a solid identity, including interests, goals, and other relationships gives us more to offer a potential partner and makes us more interesting. Research shows that being excited about life and having independent interests also contributes to lasting relationship happiness.

The Take Home Message

While some aspects of attraction are subjective or outside of our control, there are others that we can improve with knowledge and practice. One key part of attracting an available partner is to work on our own personal growth, perhaps moving outside of our comfort zone to expand our sphere of interests and relationships. A second powerful skill is to work on our own issues with attachment and insecurity that may inadvertently block us from finding the love we seek. The more we are free to focus on the other person and have fun, rather than being consumed with self-critical thoughts and fears, the greater success we will have in the game of love.

About the Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and an expert in  mindfulness,  stress, & relationships..

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Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., studies the health effects of expressive writing, cognitive adaptation to trauma, the genesis and treatment of chronic pain, among other coping issues.

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