Choose your favorite model of well-being. Now try to find any mention of sexuality in it.
Tripartite model of well-being? Nope. This framework suggests that your life is about the frequency of positive emotions, the frequency of negative emotions, and the mental judgments about life. What you do and why you do it are not mentioned (but I do love its simplicity and wide applicability).
Self-determination theory? Nope. The focus is on psychological needs that are as important as physical needs for thirst, hunger, and shelter. Humans seek a sense of social belonging, a sense of competence in mastering their environment, and a sense of autonomy or volition. In a study published last month, researchers found that for the most economically impoverished young adults living in Malawi, satisfying these needs was particularly important — predicting their effort toward aspirational goals such as going to school. So this is not a model limited to young, white, college students living in a rich democracy. But sexuality is still ignored.
PERMA? Nope. This so-called new model of well-being suggests that people have plural end states that they aim for, seeking to acquire positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning in life, and/or accomplishments. PERMA is taught as the modern model of well-being at the University of Pennsylvania (along with positive health, positive computing, positive neuroscience, and positive education. However, it is more of an acronym than a conceptual model.
We think about sex, fantasize about sex, and (preferably) have sex. Which begs the question, Why is sexuality ignored in modern models of well-being? With the exception of evolutionary psychology, there is a long list of thinkers who ignore the explicit role of sexuality in their understanding of well-being.
But there is a small body of research demonstrating a link between sex and happiness. A study of 16,000 American adults found that frequent sexual activity is tied to greater happiness, regardless of gender or age. In 3,800 adults, high-quality sex (featuring frequent orgasms along with emotional and physical satisfaction) was linked to greater happiness. A study of American adults in romantic relationships found that there was an intriguing tipping point such that people who had sex multiple times per week were no happier than those who had sex once per week. Unfortunately, the lessons to be drawn about sexuality from science have been limited to asking people to complete a bunch of surveys at one time, in one packet. Nothing can be said about directionality — if you have a great day today, are you more likely to have sex tomorrow? Will sex be better tomorrow? If you have sex today, are you more likely to have a great day tomorrow? Does it depend on whether you have intimate or orgasmic sexual experiences?
These questions drove us to conduct a study to find answers.
But another issue has been nagging at scientists : Perhaps the benefits of sex extend beyond a momentary mood boost. Perhaps sex offers us a sense of meaning in life. After all, meaning in life is the Holy Grail — something that arises from deep, existential reflections on a mountaintop with a white-bearded guru. Teachers helping traumatized 5-year-old refugees read street signs. A healthy adult donating a kidney to save another person. Astronauts orbiting the Earth, reflecting on the arbitrary positioning of Canada at the top and New Zealand at the bottom of maps and globes. Viktor Frankl writing about who did and did not survive Nazi concentration camps. Meaning in life is profound, somber, precious, and a central commodity for retaining one’s humanity in a disorderly universe.
Or is it?
A renegade researcher at the University of Missouri, Laura King, found a few kinks in this notion of meaning in life. From over a decade of research, she has found that meaning in life often arises from mundane activities. Seemingly trivial, pleasant activities, such as listening to music or making sense of complex art, allow us to make sense of ourselves and the world, and this translates into a sense of meaning in life. You can derive a sense of meaning in life on the drive to a job interview, noticing that traffic lights turn green — interpreted as the world being on your side. And when there is an opportunity to present one’s true vulnerable self (complete with quirks, shortcomings, and magnificent obsessions), without the worries of showcasing a smarter, stronger, emotionally stable version of ourselves in social encounters, we feel as if life is a bit more meaningful. If such a wide array of events can bring us meaning, perhaps ordinary sexual experiences can do the same.
So what did we discover?
For 21 consecutive days, adults reported on whether they had sex, the quality of their sex (intimacy, pleasure), and positive emotions, negative emotions, and sense of meaning in life. We found that having sex boosted people’s sense of well-being the next day. There was no evidence for the reverse: If you felt a sense of enthusiasm, excitement, or happiness today, you are no more likely to have sex tomorrow. Seems obvious in hindsight, but not if you consider the wide bandwidth of research suggesting that positive emotions and happiness are the drivers of success.
But we have some other cool findings that should not be ignored: First, the findings were the same for men and women. Sometimes gender and sex do not matter. (A surprisingly controversial point.) Second, the findings were the same regardless of whether you were having sex with a close, intimate romantic relationship partner or a romantic relationship partner that you can barely tolerate. Third, we found some evidence that the benefits of sexuality are not part of an eternal, upward spiral into the heavenly skies — for meaning in life, there appears to be a tipping point.
A common, implicit assumption is that for positive experiences and traits, more is better. Researchers should continue to test this assumption. At high levels, positive experiences can often incur costs, and in some cases, those costs can outweigh the benefits. This idea of tipping points is something that needs to be taken more seriously in the science and practice of well-being.
Our society is obsessed with sex. The pornography business earns more revenue each year than every professional sports league in the United States, combined. 20 percent of the Ten Commandments focus on sexuality. Human society persists because of sexuality. If we are to understand what motivates human beings to do the things they do, and what paths lead to a life of psychological, social, and physical well-being, we need to be able to study and converse about sexuality. Any serious examination of the good life must carefully examine what human beings think about, care about, and do. Sexuality cannot be ignored. Go forth and enjoy.
Download and read our new article for details: Kashdan, T.B., Goodman, F.R., Stiksma, M., Milius, C.R., & McKnight, P.E. (in press). Sexuality leads to boosts in mood and meaning in life with no evidence for the reverse direction: A daily diary investigation. Emotion
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology, and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. For more, visit toddkashdan.com