altafulla/Shutterstock
Source: altafulla/Shutterstock

More sex = greater happiness? Not according to a recent Carnegie Mellon report. It showed that when couples doubled their sexual frequency, they reported less happiness, decreased sexual satisfaction, and reduced well-being.

How odd.

Previous research shows that sex boosts happiness and that more sex increases it:

  • In a survey of 16,000 American adults, Swedish behavioral economists found that quadrupling sexual frequency from once a month to once a week boosted happiness as much as having an extra $50,000 in the bank.
  • Princeton behavioral economists asked 1,000 women which life activities made them feel happiest. They ranked sex Number One.
  • University of Texas psychologists asked 442 men and women why they have sex. The top reason: “Pleasure.”

So why does the recent report differ from previous studies? Simple: Instead of asking general questions about sexual frequency and happiness, the Carnegie Mellon researchers actually instructed couples to boost their sexual frequency.

“Go Home and Have Twice As Much Sex”

The subjects were 64 volunteer, married, heterosexual couples who already made love at least once a month. University of Pittsburgh researchers surveyed their happiness in general, their sexual frequency, and how they felt about their lovemaking. The researchers then told half the group to live their lives as usual, but asked the other half to double their sexual frequency. If they made love twice a month, they were asked to do it four times, etc. Participants also completed a short daily online survey about their sex and happiness.

The group that lived their lives as always remained as happy as they had been, but the more-frequent-sex group surprised the researchers by reporting less happiness and erotic satisfaction.

Quantity Vs. Quality

Alas, the Carnegie Mellon researchers were surprisingly naïve: They equated sexual frequency with erotic quality. The trouble began immediately. Only a few of the couples asked to double their frequency actually did so. On average, the more-sex group bumped it up only 40 percent. Turns out that people have clear ideas about how much sex they’d like to have—and participants rebelled against researchers’ instructions to double their frequency.

The reality is that, for most couples, sexual frequency is the result of extended—and often challenging—negotiations. New lovers can’t keep their hands off each other. But after six months to two years, the hot-and-heavy period ends, and the vast majority of long-term couples must contend with desire differences. One partner almost always wants sex more than the other, which may cause considerable strife. Differing desire is a leading reason couples consult sex therapists (and it drives a good deal of traffic to my site).

Our culture is very interested in sexual frequency—some would say we're obsessed with it. People wonder how their own frequency compares with other couples’. Many studies have investigated frequency, with results varying based on how researchers collected the information—daily diaries, recall shortly after the fact, or recall over extended periods. Couples’ sexual frequency varies wildly, from never to more than once a day, but during the average month, couples under 40 generally have sex three or four times while couples over 40 do it two or three times. If you’re making love three times a month, arbitrarily doubling it to six is likely to upset your relationship’s erotic equilibrium, causing stress and compromising happiness and erotic satisfaction.

The Carnegie Mellon results suggest that erotic quality is more important than erotic quantity. No matter how often you have sex, here’s how therapists recommend increasing its quality:

  • Schedule it. The myth is that sex “just happens” when lovers are “in the mood.” The problem is that after the hot-and-heavy period, one partner is usually in the mood a good deal more than the other, and conflict ensues. To reach mutual accommodation, sex therapists urge couples to negotiate a mutually acceptable monthly frequency, and then pull out their calendars and schedule sex lovemaking dates. Scheduling may feel artificial at first, but it goes a long way toward eliminating conflicts over frequency. The partner with less libido usually objects to scheduling—What if we have a sex date scheduled and I’m not in the mood? That’s possible, of course, but once relieved of the stress of saying “no” to constant pleas, the vast majority of lower-libido lovers feel so relieved that they have little difficulty psyching themselves when sex is scheduled.
  • Warm up out of bed. Before you undress, cuddle on the sofa, share a glass of wine, chat about your day, trade foot massages, or do other little things together that bring you closer.
  • Shower, together or separately. Sex is best when lovers feel relaxed. Showering is relaxing. It also eases hygiene concerns.
  • Create an erotic mood. Put out clean sheets. Light candles or keep curtains slightly open. Play music. And begin dressed.
  • Do the opposite of porn. In pornography, sex is 95 percent genital, and only 5 percent kissing, embracing, and caressing. Flip this, because the best sex involves leisurely, playful, whole-body mutual massage. Many women say it takes them a good 30 minutes of sensual play to warm up. Postponing intercourse also helps men maintain erections.
  • Take turns giving and receiving pleasure. Simultaneous orgasms are as common as solar eclipses. Don't expect it or strive for it. Only 25 percent of women are reliably orgasmic during intercourse, no matter now long it lasts; most gentle, extended, direct caresses with fingers, tongue, or vibrator. Take turns helping each other to orgasm.
  • Coach each other on what you enjoy. You can simply say “yes” or “ahhh” when you enjoy what you’re receiving. Most lovers very quickly provide more of what elicits “ahhhs.”
  • Savor the afterglow. Don’t immediately jump out of bed. Hold each other. Perhaps whisper endearments.

Sexual pleasure is more about quality than quantity. Whatever your frequency, focus on mutual pleasure.

References

  • Blanchflower, D.G. and A.J. Oswald. “Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study,” Scandinavian Journal of Economics (2004) 106:393.
  • Kahneman, D. et al. “Toward National Well-Being Accounts,” American Economic Review (2004) 94:429.
  • Loewenstein, G. et al. “Does Increased Sexual Frequency Enhance Happiness?” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (2015) 116:206.
  • Meston, CM and DM Buss. “Why Humans Have Sex,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2007) 36:477. 

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