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5 Vital Keys to Success in Love and Dating

Research-based tips for becoming a more perfect partner.

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Love acts in mysterious ways, but research can help you learn some of its secrets and make yourself a more attractive love prospect. Love is a complex mixture of biochemistry, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Yet science reveals simple rules you can follow for success. In addition to the predictable factor of physical attractiveness, traits like being open, confident, engaged, and positive make you more desirable to potential partners. Following are five science-based factors that can enhance your prospects of finding and keeping a partner:

1. Physical Appearance and Body Type

It isn’t fair, but studies show that one's chances of getting a second date or having an online prospect respond to a profile are heavily influenced by physical attractiveness. It seems to convey a “halo effect” in which we assume a more attractive person will be more successful, sexy, interesting, and fun. The effects are strongest when we have limited opportunity to get to know an individual at a deeper level. Studies show that men are more attracted to women with smaller waist to hip ratios—in other words, hourglass figures. Low waist-to-hip ratio is a sign of health, youth, and fertility, since our bellies expand with stress and age, but the effect is relatively independent of overall weight, which means one doesn’t have to be skinny to benefit from the effect. We also find symmetrical faces more attractive (perhaps accounting for the prevalence of celebrity brow shapers in Hollywood).

2. Hormones and Brain Chemicals

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and her colleagues explain the chemical basis of love in a three-stage model: Not surprisingly, the early stage of attraction—the Lust Stage—is governed by the release of testosterone and estrogen. At this stage, attraction is relatively indiscriminate, increasing the chances of finding many attractive mates. In the Attraction Stage, our brains become more fixated on a particular person, releasing a cocktail of chemicals designed to focus our attention on our new beloved and make us want to spend lots of time with them. The release of dopamine, for example, 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. And 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 experienced decreases. In the final stage, Attachment, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin promote long-term bonding. Both are released during or after sexual intercourse, which may explain why sex is linked to couples' closeness and long-term satisfaction.

3. Getting on the Same Wavelength

Both men and women are attracted to people whom they perceive as being on the same wavelength. In a 2009 study of speed daters, researcher Nicholas Gueguen trained women to mimic the nonverbal gestures and words of some male partners and not others: If the partner touched their arm, for example, they were instructed to touch his arm a few minutes later. When women mimicked their partners, the partners were more likely to want to give them their contact information—and to rate them as more sexually attractive. Research by 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 participants to rate the attractiveness of different faces. But he had secretly taken photos of the participants' faces and morphed them with some of the computerized facial pictures. The 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.

4. Availability and Openness

Nobody wants to be rejected, which is why we are more attracted to people who communicate openness, a willingness to engage and be vulnerable, and, of course, fondness for us. Researcher Art Aron and colleagues generated 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 after the study: Aron’s first couple married six months later and invited the researchers to their wedding.

Other studies show that we are attracted to kind and friendly people, and to 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.

5. Confidence and Curiosity

Lack of confidence is a common barrier to attracting partners: Anxiety makes us self-focused and hesitant, which gets in the way of engaging and attuning to a partner—or sharing our own interests and views. 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 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

Some aspects of attraction are subjective or outside of our control, while we can improve others with knowledge and practice. A key part of attracting an available partner is to work on our own personal growth, perhaps moving outside our comfort zone to expand our sphere of interests and relationships. A second powerful skill is to work on 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.

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

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