How Sex Gives Meaning to Life

Sensual pleasure and social connection

Posted Jul 09, 2018

Vhpicstock/Shutterstock
Source: Vhpicstock/Shutterstock

What gives meaning to life? This is a question that has been debated at least since the days of the Ancient Greek philosophers. The discussion has centered on the question of which is more important for a fulfilling life — the pleasures of the body or the pleasures of the mind.

Those who subscribe to hedonism define happiness as the experience of pleasure and the absence of pain. A meaningful life, then, is one filled with the sensual pleasures of the body. Thus, tasty food and drink are an important component of the good life. But so are bodily activities, such as playing sports and games, dancing, and enjoying music. And don’t forget the greatest bodily experience of all — sex. According to the hedonist, a life of frequent, high-quality sex is one that’s well lived.

Others discount bodily pleasures relative to those of the mind, arguing that meaning in life is achieved through the pursuit of what the Ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia (pronounced you-DIE-muh-NEE-uh). This term roughly translates as being in good spirits, but the point is that the most meaningful pleasures in life come from activity of mind rather than body.

Those who subscribe to Eudaimonia certainly don’t argue that life should be lived in solitude and austerity. However, they do maintain that a life of learning and contemplation is more meaningful in the long run than one filled with the pursuit of fleeting sensual pleasures. So they would count a deep conversation with a trusted friend as adding more meaning to life than a romp in the hay with a lover. Again, it’s not that sensual pleasures should be avoided. It’s just that you’ve got to get your priorities straight.

In the last few decades, researchers in a field known as positive psychology have taken up the ancient question of what constitutes a good life. But rather than just debating the issue, they’re trying to apply the scientific method to find an answer.

According to psychologist Todd Kashdan and his colleagues at George Mason University, studies on subjective well-being have focused more on aspects of Eudaimonia than of hedonism. This is especially true when it comes to questions of sexuality in everyday life. There’s still an undercurrent of puritanism in North America, and this is reflected in the kinds of studies funding agencies are willing to finance and journal editors are willing to publish.

To be sure, there are plenty of published studies on sexuality, but they tend to focus on the negative — intimacy problems in relationships, pernicious effects of sexual abuse and coercion, and so on. These are certainly important issues, and we can help alleviate untold suffering if we can find effective ways of dealing with them.

However, Kashdan and colleagues look instead at the positive aspects of sexuality, and they dare to ask the question: Does engaging in sexual activity lead to an increased sense of meaning in life?

For this study, the researchers recruited 152 college students who agreed to respond to a survey before going to bed each night for three weeks. Before beginning the study, they provided the following information about themselves:

  • Relationship status — About 64 percent of respondents indicated they were in a committed relationship, most of them dating, but some living together or married.
  • Relationship closeness — Those in committed relationships also responded to questions regarding how close they felt to their partner.
  • Relationship length — They also indicated how long they’d been in the relationship. Most reported a range from one to five years.

Each night before sleeping, the participants responded to questions measuring the following issues:

  • Meaning in life — Participants responded on a scale from 1 (“not at all”) to 7 (“very much”) to the question: “How meaningful did you feel your life was today?”
  • Positive and negative affect — Using the same 7-point scale, the participants reported on their levels of four positive moods (enthusiasm, happiness, satisfaction, and excitement), as well their levels of four negative moods (embarrassment, disappointment, anxiety, and sadness).
  • Sexual activity — Participants reported whether they had had sex that day. For the purposes of the study, only sexual acts with a partner were counted. If they’d had sex that day, they also rated their feelings of pleasure and intimacy.

This should come as no surprise, but Kashdan and colleagues did find that sexual activity was correlated with both positive mood and a sense of meaning in life. However, correlation doesn’t show whether one causes the other. It could be that having sex makes people feel happy and fulfilled, but it could also be that happy, fulfilled people have more sex.

To get at the question of whether sex gives meaning to life, the researchers conducted a time-lagged analysis. That is, they considered whether sexual activity on one day was correlated with a positive mood and sense of fulfillment on the next day. Indeed it was. They then looked at whether a positive mood and sense of meaning in life on Day 1 predicted engagement in sexual activity on Day 2. It did not.

In other words, the time-lagged analysis suggests that having sex leads to a positive mood and a sense of fulfillment that continues into the next day. This finding is consistent with other studies which have found that the “afterglow” of sex extends for a day or two after the act. The researchers don’t deny the likelihood that happy, fulfilled people have more sex. Rather, they simply contend that it’s sexual activity that makes people happy and fulfilled, not that their happiness and fulfillment leads them to have more sex.

Furthermore, when the researchers compared those in committed relationships with those who were not, they found no differences in reported positive mood and meaning in life after sex. This suggests that the received wisdom about sex within committed relationships being more fulfilling than casual sex may not be true.

Kashdan and colleagues are cautious in interpreting this result, since their participants were college students, mostly in the age range of 18-20. They argued that today’s college students, with their hook-up culture, may have more positive attitudes about casual sex than previous generations.

I’m not so sure I buy this argument. When I was a college student back in the 1970s, casual sex was pretty common. It’s just that you met your partner for the night in a bar rather than through a smartphone app.

One of the most important and consistent findings of positive psychology is that meaningful social relationships are absolutely essential for a sense of well-being and purpose in life. When others show interest and concern in us, we feel validated. Likewise, as we express our interest and concern for others, we feel our life has meaning.

However, as Kashdan and colleagues point out, partnered sex isn’t just about sensual pleasure. It’s also a social act. And when we think about sex this way, we can understand why it boosts our mood and sense of fulfillment beyond the gratification of the moment. After all, what could be more affirming to another person than to willingly engage with them in the most intimate acts of human experience?

References

Kashdan, T. B., Goodman, F. R., Stiksma, M., Milius, C. R., & McKnight, P. E. (2018). Sexuality leads to boosts in mood and meaning in life with no evidence for the reverse direction: A daily diary investigation. Emotion, 18, 563-567.

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