Have Psychologists Answered The Question - How Much Sex Makes You Happy? By Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

A psychology study involving over 30,000 participants has attempted to give a definitive answer to the question; when it comes to sex, is it true you can never have enough?

Go to the profile of Matt Freemantle
Apr 07, 2017

Published in November 2015 and entitled, ‘Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better’, the study was inspired by a quote from the novelist John Updike: Sex is like money; only too much is enough.

Now new research, just published last month, might explain the magic number these psychologists had originally found; the precise rate of sex between couples, which maximises happiness.

The psychologists who initially uncovered the charmed number, based at the University of Toronto, were stirred to conduct the investigation by our cultural pre-occupation with sex. They cite a New York Times article about two couples who ‘‘kick-started their marriage’’ by deciding to have sex every day for a year.

Previous research had found that the more sex you have, generally speaking, the happier you will feel. However, practically anything which cheers you up, tends to produce a drop off in benefits, when done to excess.

For example, having an occasional drink elevates mood, but binge drinking creates problems. Seeing friends every now and again is fun, but seeing them too much becomes a drag.

So, could you have too much of a good thing, even in the bedroom?

The latest results seem to confirm that there is an optimal amount of sex which promotes happiness, and that once you reach that magic number, then your happiness levels don’t get any higher.

The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that once a week is the optimal amount of sex to have in terms of producing well-being.

The authors, Amy Muise, Ulrich Schimmack, and Emily Impett, point out that their finding, that more sex no longer produces greater well-being at a rate greater than once a week, is supported by other recent research. For example, when a group of couples was asked to double their sexual frequency, there were no increases in well-being, compared to those in a control group who maintained their current rate.

The effect is major; the size of the difference in well-being for people having sex once a week, compared with those having sex less than once a month, was greater than the size of the difference in well-being for those making 75,000 US dollars compared with 25,000 dollars a year—a difference of 50,000 dollars.

Increasing frequency of sex from once a month to once a week created the same elevation in mood as if your earnings went up by 50,000 dollars a year.

One theory about why once a week might be the optimal amount is suggested by a new study just published this month entitled, ‘More Than Just Sex: Affection Mediates the Association Between Sexual Activityand Well-Being’. This new research, from the University of Fribourg and The University of Toronto, suggests that the reason why sex is so important in relationships may have been fundamentally misunderstood all along.

The latest finding is that sex promotes affection. It’s this vital role within a relationship which ends up being more important than the more momentary pleasure which physical intimacy has traditionally been associated with.

The investigation, published in the journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, concludes that affection plays a key role in how sex promotes well-being; why it makes us happier people. Possibly this is why once a week is enough.

The authors of the study, Anik Debrot, Nathalie Meuwly, Amy Muise, Emily Impett, and Dominik Schoebi, contend that pursuing sex is not just about seeking an intimate connection, but is linked to experiencing more affection. This happens both during the act itself, but crucially also endures over the next few hours. Sex seems not only beneficial because of its physiological or pleasurable effects, but also because it promotes a stronger and more positive connection with partners.

Once a week, also turns out to be the average amount of sex people are having according to most surveys, in other words it’s kind of the norm, and maybe that’s because this number is just what is needed to maximise affection between a couple.

Perhaps couples in healthy relationships gravitate towards this natural average or norm, because for most people, more sex than this, is not linked with greater happiness, given no further increases in affection occur, even if there might be more pleasure.

Sex Therapists refer to ‘‘good enough sex’’, which encourages couples to cease comparing themselves with imagined sexual athletes. It’s wise to hold realistic expectations about a sex life.

Maybe sex is not the be all and end all of life and happiness, so for couples with hectic lives, work and child care responsibilities mean that feeling pressurised to engage in sex as frequently as possible, ends up causing more stress and unhappiness.

But how much you think other people are having sex might determine how happy you are about your intimate life. Maybe some of those having sex more than once a week are doing so because they are being driven by how much they think they ought to be having, as opposed to how much they actually need.

Tim Wadsworth, a sociologist from University of Colorado argues that sex is indeed a bit like money, in our tendency to constantly make comparisons with others, and this becomes vital in its contribution to our happiness.

He points out in his study entitled, ‘Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People’s Sex Lives are Related to our Sense of Well-Being’, that previous research examining the link between how much you earn and your happiness levels uncover it’s not absolute levels of income that determines happiness, instead it’s how much you are earning compared to everyone around you, or your reference group.

Your reference group are those you naturally tend to compare yourself with. Maybe colleagues at work or people you were at school or University with.

In his study published in the journal, Social Indicators Research, Tim Wadsworth’s survey found respondents who have more sex than their reference group are happier, while those having less physical intimacy than their reference group become less joyful.

Tim Wadsworth’s theory is that sex is like money in that ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is a preoccupation in Western culture. It’s how well the ‘Joneses’ are doing compared to you, which really determines your cheerfulness.

This explains the counter-intuitive finding that as people’s income goes up, their happiness levels don’t tend to rise in parallel. Earning more money doesn’t increase contentment because our reference group, ‘the Jones’, are probably also experiencing their own income growth.

Tim Wadsworth quotes the well-known study where Harvard public health students were given the option of living in a world where they would make 50,000 dollars a year and everyone else would make 25,000 dollars, or one in which they would make 100,000 dollars, and everyone else would make 250,000. A majority of the respondents chose the first option—a world in which they would have half as much purchasing power, but would be relatively high earners.

If the students were valuing doing better relative to their neighbours, rather than absolute income, they perhaps the same applies to sex.

Tim Wadswoth’s theory is that how sex makes us happy is intricately connected to our guesses about the sex lives of others.

The authors of the first study, Amy Muise, Ulrich Schimmack, and Emily Impett, take a different view and insist that the power of sex lies in the realm of its ability to promote affection between people.

These argue that because men generally report higher sexual desire, they might rely more on sex than women do, as their way of experiencing affection.

These authors conclude their investigation with a rebuttal of John Updike’s statement, Sex is like money; only too much is enough. The novelist seemed to be suggesting limitless benefits to engaging in sex (and making more money) in that you can never get enough, and he did suffer from a reputation for being preoccupied with sex and infidelity.

The latest psychological research demonstrates, however, that although greater sexual frequency is associated with greater well-being, more is not always better. Instead, sex may be like money—only too little is bad.

Dr Raj Persaud is a Harley Street Consultant Psychiatrist and Professor Adrian Furnham Professor of Psychology at University College London. Both are authors of several best-selling psychology books – Dr Raj Persaud is author of ‘Simply Irresistible: The Psychology of Seduction’ published by Bantam Press and Professor Adrian Furnham with Dr Viren Swami are authors of ‘The Psychology of Physical Attraction’, published by Routledge. Dr Raj Persaud is giving a talk on psychology of sex and relationships entitled ‘Bridget Jones vs Monogamy’ at Boondocks in London on Monday 10th April book here:

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