Sex is complicated. Sometimes it feels good and sometimes uncomfortable or painful. Sometimes we are flooded with warmth and love and sometimes with alienation and despair. Sex is at times fulfilling and at times frustrating and incomplete.
To complicate things even more, feelings of happiness related to sex can have any of the above elements. According to research recently published in the journal Science, sex does not have to be good or pleasurable in order to make us feel happy.
According to this research, done by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, happiness arises when we are fully engaged in the experiences of our bodies in the present moment; when our attention is completely filled up with our body sense (embodied self-awareness).
The Science study shows that when we are distracted by thoughts, doubts, judgments, daydreams, and other ruminations (conceptual self-awareness), we are inevitably less happy with the activity. In fact, we missed a lot — because when we think, we can't at the same time be available to access the flow of feelings and sensations in our bodies.
So, maybe you and your partner were not at your best during a recent sexual encounter. As long as you were both fully engaged with each other, just sharing the experiences that did happen, it brings you closer together, builds a partnership that includes hope for the next time. This process of deep connection, shared sensation, and mutual engagement — even without all of the pleasure — can make you happier.
The study found that presence, not pleasure, brings happiness. Let's take a closer look.
Researchers paged 2,250 adults between the ages of 18 and 88 (58 percent male, 74 percent in the U.S.) at random times during the day using an iPhone app they developed called trackyourhappiness. The participants were asked to name the activity in which they were engaged, rate how good they felt on a scale of 0 to 100, and say whether they were distracted by thoughts or daydreams and if those thoughts were positive, negative, or neutral.
Not surprisingly, people who were paged while having sex were the most likely to be happy (at least until they were paged!), at 90 percent of respondents. About 75 percent of people said they were happy while engaged in exercise, conversation, eating, walking, shopping, listening to music, or reading. The fewest number of people reported being happy while working, grooming, and commuting.
From this ordering of activities in relation to happiness, you might think that people were happier doing inherently more pleasurable things. The data revealed, however, that happiness was higher when people were more fully engaged regardless of activity: the type of activity did not matter as much as being focused on one's embodied experience of doing it without being interrupted by distracting thoughts.
It is likely that more people were happier during sex because sex creates powerful surges of physiological arousal (warmth, blood flow, heart rate increases, excitement, tingling, throbbing, body hunger, and the like) that capture our full attention: the ultimate body sense high. Exercise, eating, walking and other similar activities also create physiological shifts that grab attention away from our routine ruminations.
As I've written in other posts, we can easily become absorbed in distracting thoughts even during these arousing activities, resulting in loss of enjoyment in the moment. Long-term dissociation from the body sense can lead to mental and physical dysfunctions of sexuality (premature ejaculation in males and orgasmic dysfunction in females), eating disorders and obesity, and declines in health. When we don't pay attention to how our body feels while shopping, preparing, and eating food, to take one example, we are more likely to eat in ways that diminish rather than nourish our well-being.
The iPhone study also confirmed this by showing that for several hours after mind wandering, people rated themselves as less happy. Low levels of happiness at one moment, however, did not pre-dispose someone's mind to wander in the hours that followed. According to the authors: "A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind." Our ability to access our embodied experiences in the present moment of awareness is clearly the key to happiness and health.
But what about having positive thoughts, like remembering your vacation to Hawaii or a previous sexual tryst that made you happy? Assuming you are doing nothing else, these thoughts may be helpful in elevating mood. Positive thoughts are also helpful to calm the nervous system in the face of threat, fear, and trauma. The problem is thinking any kind of thought when trying to do something else.
The iPhone study found that working or commuting, the least happiness-promoting activities, when done with one's full focus of attention, actually make people happier than thinking positive thoughts during any kind of activity. And negative thoughts at any time make you feel worse. So, in general, you'll be far happier feeling, sensing, and being in the moment with whatever you do than trying to think your way to happiness.
If you notice that you get distracted, try to bring yourself back to feeling in the present moment. What are the sensations, movements, and emotions of doing what you are doing?
If you can't do this on your own, you may need help slowing down your mind by engaging in a body sense enhancing practice like yoga, some types of meditation, somatic psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, slow movement practices, or awareness-based bodywork treatments like Rosen Method Bodywork and the Feldenkrais method.