If you’ve spent any time on Tinder or Match.com, you know one of the most popular characteristics a person looks for in a potential partner is a sense of humor. Even John Legend told ET that he fell in love with Chrissy Teigen after seeing on Twitter and in texts how “engaging and witty and funny she is.”
But for laughter to really impact a relationship, it’s not enough to simply pair up with someone who’s insanely funny. Some researchers suggest a happy relationship is actually the result of a culmination of what many people consider “the little things.” Grandma may have had it right all along.
Sara Algoe, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has spent a great deal of time studying what she describes as “the little positive moments” that keep us coming back to our partner (in other words, she’s usually got a ready answer to the timeless question, “What’s the secret to a happy marriage?”).
One of those elements is shared laughter. Not all laughter is the same, Algoe explains. In 2015, she conducted a study that looked at video recordings of 71 heterosexual romantic couples having a conversation about the first time they met. She and her co-author found that the proportion of the conversation spent laughing together was positively associated with how safe and secure a person felt with their partner. When asked to describe what it was like laughing with their partner, one participant told Algoe, “Everything else just kind of disappeared, and we were alone together in that moment.”
Algoe explains that shared laughter allows two people the opportunity to cultivate more positive emotions between them. “[It’s] really a signal that you both see the world in the same way,” she says.
Another “little thing” that tends to get overlooked in relationships—especially as couples start families and find themselves scrambling just to get alone time together in the midst of a hectic schedule—is saying “thank you.” In a 2016 study, Algoe recorded 370 couples as they took turns talking about what they were grateful for in regards to their partner—answers included everything from making banana pudding to accompanying them on a hospital stay.
According to the study’s results, when a person expressed how grateful they were of their partner, their partner perceived them as more responsive and more loving. In short, the study states, their partner “felt better in general,” and the combination of these experiences suggest relationship growth. It’s through these moments of gratitude, Algoe says, that people can build a bridge between each other, thus “really solidifying that bond between the two of you.”
Algoe says there’s important research in her field about what kinds of things happen in relationships so that they don’t fail, but she’s always been interested in understanding what moments between people help them get along better. “Even though they might seem fluffy or frivolous from a scientific perspective, actually because of their frequency, they actually might be really important,” she says. In fact, she continues, they might actually “really be the glue that helps to keep good relationships on track and really flourishing.”