I’m a geek. I apply my scientific research skills to most decisions in my life even though some might say I am too analytical. I put considerable effort into the big decisions – those that will last a long time or cost a lot of money. Planning a perfect date falls into neither of those categories but I turned to my trusted friend, science, anyway. Why? Because, as The Donald proves, you just look stupid if you argue with science and if I say to my partner “Science says that this is the best date you can go on” he has to agree!
Do something new and challenging
Relationship researcher, Professor Arthur Aron of the University of California at Berkeley recommends doing activities together that are novel and challenging. It floods the brain’s reward system with the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These also happen to be the hormones that hit your brain when you are falling in love. Remember that ‘I can’t get enough of you’ phase that closely resembles an addiction?
The hormone rush you get from a shared novel and challenging activity will inject some excitement into your relationship. If you plan a series of these types of dates you’ll be hacking your partner’s brain to associate time with you with being rewarded – winning! It’s similar to how gambling gets people hooked – the shots of hormones to the brain’s reward center make you crave more.
Add some exertion
Ok, so we’ve got novel and challenging on the list. Science also says that exercise increases the serotonin levels in your brain. This is another brain chemical, sometimes called the happiness hormone. Many researchers believe that a serotonin imbalance can lead to depression, so having plenty of it in your brain is a good thing!
The exercise you do on the perfect date doesn’t have to be extreme – just something to lift the heart rate a little. If your partner has a strict ‘no sweating’ policy then I recommend you don’t plan a date involving mountain climbing or marathon running. That’s unlikely to improve your popularity. A gentle stroll or mild exertion at an amusement parlor will be enough.
When you are selecting a novel and challenging activity that includes some exertion, select something that you are both likely to succeed at. If you organize a session at an indoor rock climbing center and your partner is terrified of heights (but you’ve wanted to do it for ages) then it’s not going to end well is it?
In my case, apparently, I dance like a geek on heat (the unflattering description given by my partner-with-a-death-wish). We both like to dance but I now refuse to do so in front of him. A perfect date for us is No Lights No Lycra events where the notion is that everyone can dance. You dance in the dark so no one can see you. Not particularly challenging but novel, gets the heart rate up, and is heaps of fun. More importantly, we can both be successful at dancing so we get the benefit of the feel-good hormones.
To amplify the effect, it’s important to recognize your partner’s success, no matter how small, to trigger the reward center of their brain. In my case, this will just come off as sarcasm if my partner compliments my dancing as he’s already burnt his bridges. Don’t be like my partner, be supportive and nice instead. Compliment your partner on their success during and after the activity to get their brain’s reward center really pumping (which is about the only thing my partner will get pumping with his current attitude).
Those trusty scientists have discovered that shared laughter is good for your relationship. Researchers at the University of North Carolina explored the impact of laughter on relationships, with one of the researchers commenting: “For people who are laughing together, shared laughter signals that they see the world in the same way, and it momentarily boosts their sense of connection. The perceived similarity ends up being an important part of the story of relationships.”
It goes without saying that laughter on a date night will not work if you are laughing at your partner. Again, this goes back to the activity selection. If your partner is completely uncoordinated then don’t plan a date that involves ice skating or juggling or anything else that they will make a mess of (even if it will give you a few laughs).
Also, researchers at the University of California found that awe brings people together. Watching something awe-inspiring encourages you to stop focusing on yourself. You will look more at what’s around you — toward other people (including your romantic partner) and the world at large. By doing that, you’ll naturally seek more social engagement.
My personal experience with a shared awe-inspiring moment found this to be true. My partner and I were at a lake where there happened to be bio-luminescence. Each splash in the water resulted in a cascade of neon-blue light. We spent a lot of time kicking through the water together, marveling at the phenomenon. It’s a shared memory we happily recall years later.
You can bet that in twenty years’ time you won’t remember the trips to the shopping mall or the movies together but you will remember when you watched a majestic storm sweep across a valley from a high vantage point.
If planning the perfect date all sounds too hard, just focus on including one or two of the ideas I’ve listed. It will still be far better for your relationship than doing dinner or a movie for every date. The key thing is to create an association between being together and having fun – this creates a positive feedback loop that trains your brains that spending time together is rewarding.