She studies what makes relationships last

Psychologist Sara Algoe and her team have found that gratitude, touch and shared laughter keep couples together.

Sara Algoe wearing a grey jacket, in front of Sitterson Hall.
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Untangling the factors that make relationships work is at the heart of psychologist Sara Algoe’s research. Having high-quality relationships with people we care about predicts mental and physical health — even how long we may live.

“Close relationships are linked to longevity to the same degree that smoking is linked to mortality,” said Algoe, a professor of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We spend billions of dollars trying to get people to stop smoking for better health. We need to also focus on the science behind healthy relationships and how we can help them thrive.”

Algoe directs the Emotions and Social Interactions in Relationships Laboratory. She and her team use relationship science methods to study the effects of interactions between people in real relationships. She cites Jane Goodall’s pioneering work in documenting chimpanzee social behaviors as an inspiration for doing similar work in humans.

“Is it weird to say I’m a people-watcher at heart?” Algoe asked. “I am fascinated by getting into the nuts and bolts of how we find and cultivate our best relationships.”

Her lab analyzes recordings of couples interacting and having conversations and conducts surveys to gather data about healthy relationships. They have evaluated how gratitude, affectionate touch and shared laughter promote healthy relationships.

“In the past, researchers viewed this as frivolous or superficial. A lot of researchers have focused instead on looking at how to mitigate deficits in relationships,” Algoe said. “But all our data shows that these are the essential elements of a good relationship. For the past 10 years, we have been looking at the social behaviors of everyday life that really help us connect with other people.”

Algoe’s work is rooted in her decade-old “find-remind-bind” theory of relationships, which says that gratitude is the glue that holds responsive, interactive couples together over time.

“We and others have now collected an extraordinary amount of data on expressing and receiving gratitude,” Algoe said. “The thing that always strikes me is how simple it can be. It does not take much to have a big effect on the person who hears it.”

Observing and studying couples has also led to new discoveries. For example, her team noticed that couples waiting to enter her lab touched, kissed or made out on the couch. That led to research on the role of affectionate touch. Her team also noticed in video recordings that many couples laughed together.

“We theorized that it is the shared laughter that matters. It signals that you see the world in the same way,” Algoe said. “We found that people who shared laughter felt more connected than those who did not share laughter. I call it the ‘mind meld.’”

Algoe believes that if relationships bring us joy and health, then scientists should do more to understand what makes them work. It’s akin to investing in disease prevention rather than focusing solely on a cure.

To this end, Algoe founded The Love Consortium, which links international researchers with the goal of sharing data and promoting collaboration on relationships of all types.

“It’s like a match-making system for researchers and their data sets,” she said. When the group met in person in Durham in September 2022, “it was such an intellectual joy to see so many people presenting innovative work on love and to see them inspired and excited about each other’s research. The consortium has truly been my passion project.”