Could Having More Sex Actually Make You Less Happy?
New research may upend some long-held assumptions.
Posted Sep 12, 2015
The wealth of evidence linking sexual frequency to happiness (e.g., Blanchflower & Oswald, 2004) is based on correlational data. This means that people’s reported sexual frequency and their reported happiness tend to correspond: People who have more sex tend to be happier, and those who have less sex tend to be less happy.
These data are interesting, and we might be tempted to think that having sex increases happiness, but that would be a misinterpretation. The co-occurrence of two factors does not necessarily mean that the first causes the second.
Sex might cause more happiness, but happiness might increase sexual frequency—or there could be a third variable, such as stress, that drives each (e.g., less stress might lead to both more sex and more happiness).
So does having more sex really increase happiness? Or is there another explanation? The only way to tentatively infer cause and effect is to conduct experimental research, and that’s exactly what a set of scientists have now done (Lowenstein, Krishnamurti, Kopsic, & McDonald, 2015).
They recruited 128 couples between the ages of 35 and 65, all of whom reported having sex at least once a month but fewer than three times a week.* Couples were randomly assigned to a control condition or an experimental condition. Those in the experimental condition were explicitly instructed to double their weekly sexual frequency. Happiness was measured via online surveys for three months after the experiment began.
Did more sex increase happiness? Surprisingly, no. In fact, increasing sexual frequency had the opposite effect. The researchers found a weak inverse relation: The group of individuals asked to double their sexual frequency were less happy than those who did not change their sexual habits.
If more sex reduces happiness, does this mean intentionally increasing your sexual frequency might make you unhappy?
When trying to understand their findings, the researchers determined that instructions to have more sex change why people have sex. In other words, the instructions moved sex from a voluntary and spontaneous experience to one done as a duty or obligation. People weren’t having sex because they wanted to, but because they were supposed to.
The take home? Why you have sex may matter more than how often; to have sex because you want to is more important than doing so because you feel you have to, especially when it comes to its potential impact on your mood.
* The researchers were concerned that doubling to sex to six days a week would exceed the point of diminishing returns.
Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2004). Money, sex and happiness: An empirical study. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 106, 393-415.
Loewenstein, G., Krishnamurti, T., Kopsic, J., & McDonald, D. (2015). Does Increased Sexual Frequency Enhance Happiness?. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 116, 206-218.