In its eternal quest to improve our lives, science has been doing the important work of unlocking the secrets to a happy relationship. While things like shared interests, morals, and a willingness to share your HBO Go password probably all play significant roles, researchers at Florida State University, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Minnesota are leaning toward something that involves much less effort: sharing photos of adorable animals. According to The Wall Street Journal, a joint study recently published in Psychological Science found that people felt a whole lot more satisfied in their relationships when asked to assess their feelings after looking at pictures of, we don’t know, a baby sea lion who has had a day, let us tell you.
The study centered on what social psychologists call evaluative conditioning, which tracks the changes in how much you like or dislike something after a positive or negative stimulus has been added to the mix. Evaluative conditioning is something we experience all the time—a bout with salmonella could put you off (improperly) poached eggs forever, for example, or you could accept that weekend overtime because your boss included a smiley emoji in their email.
Researchers wanted to know just how much evaluative conditioning goes on in a relationship, and drew 120 couples who’d been married for three to four years to participate. The couples were asked to gauge their “implicit” or gut-level feelings about their spouses, while also being treated to slideshows of pictures of happy things, like beaches and sleepy puppies, once every three days for six weeks. And surprise, surprise: the couples reported having improved implicit feelings after looking at photos of their spouses interspersed with photos of flowers or sunrises. Lead researcher and Florida State psychology professor Jim McNulty (not that one) said it was like “they went on 13 artificial good dates,” unintentionally putting an end to real date nights everywhere.
But scrolling through pictures of baby musk oxen wasn’t the primary purpose of the study. Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, as part of the Military Suicide Research Consortium, it’s part of a concerted effort to “stem the suicide rate of active military members and veterans,” with its goal being “to find ways to strengthen soldiers’ marriages and, therefore, their support systems. However, the WSJ article and study landing page don’t indicate whether military couples participated in this round of the research.