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More Sex is Supposed to Make You Happier, but Does it?

More Sex is Supposed to Make You Happier, but Does it?:

The more sex a couple has, the happier the partners will be, right? That’s what common sense and a slew of pop psychology books suggest. Indeed, there’s even one book out there that effectively challenges couples to ramp up their sex lives by doing it once per day for 101 days in order to improve their marriages.

At first glance, this advice would seem to be supported by the science. Study after study has found a positive correlation between relationship satisfaction and sexual frequency, meaning that the happiest couples tend to be the ones who have the most sex. Taking a cue from the research may not have the desired effect in this case, though.

Correlational research is dangerously seductive when it aligns with our common sense. I know it sounds plausible that having more sex makes people happier, but correlations do not reveal anything about cause and effect.

We cannot rule out the possibility that being in a happier relationship causes couples to have more sex, or that the link between sex and happiness can be explained by some third variable, such as health, age or personality (e.g., maybe being physically healthy leads couples to be happier and to have more sex). The common sense explanation is therefore just one of many possibilities.

If we really want to know whether a change in sexual frequency causes a corresponding change in relationship happiness, we would need to conduct an experiment in which we assign some couples to increase their sexual frequency and other couples to stay the same for a specified period of time and then check to see how happy everyone was in the end. Fortunately for us, such a study has just been published and, as it turns out, the results turn conventional wisdom on its head.

In this study, which appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (a seemingly unlikely place for a sex study), researchers recruited 128 male-female married couples to participate. To be eligible for the study, the partners had to be free of chronic health conditions and not currently have any sexual problems. On average, participants were in their mid-40s, mostly white, college-educated and on their first marriage. The couples were having sex about 5-6 times per month as a baseline.

Approximately half of the participants were randomly assigned to double their weekly frequency of sexual intercourse for the next 90 days; the other half were given no such instructions about how often to have sex. For the following three months, participants completed a brief survey each morning about their sex lives and mood states.

Those who were instructed to increase their sexual frequency did indeed do so, but doubling it seemed difficult to achieve. On average, sexual frequency was increased about 40 percent in this group. Surprisingly, however, an increase in sexual frequency did not translate to an increase in happiness. In fact, just the opposite was observed. The couples who increased their sexual frequency were less happy than the control group for all three months of the study.

It did not matter whether the couples who increased their sexual frequency actually achieved their doubling target or not either – the mood of couples who doubled the amount of sex they were having was no better than the mood of couples who achieved a smaller increase in sexual frequency.

So why weren’t the couples who had more sex happier in the end? The researchers argue that the doubling instructions “affected the couples’ intrinsic motivation to have sex.” In other words, perhaps sex went from being a voluntary and spontaneous thing to something that became more planned and obligatory.

Consistent with this idea, those who increased their sexual frequency also reported less enjoyment of sex and less desire for it over the course of the study compared to the control group.

Other researchers have documented similar experiences among heterosexual couples who are trying to become pregnant. When they start to rigidly schedule sex around ovulation, it seems to take a lot of the fun out of it.

This study is limited in a few important ways. The sample was not representative of all couples, and it appears that “sexual intercourse” was not defined for participants. If being a sex researcher has taught me anything, it’s that everyone defines sex in a different way. Perhaps if we looked at more specific types of sex (oral, vaginal, anal, etc.), we might see that some of them are related to happiness in different ways.

This study does provide the first experimental evidence that when couples essentially force themselves to have more sex, it doesn’t necessarily make them any happier. Indeed, it seems to make them less happy and makes the sex that they do have less enjoyable.

Couples are probably better served not by making themselves do it more often, but rather by focusing on the quality of the sex they are having and by working to remove the roadblocks to physical intimacy (e.g., bringing work stress home with you, checking email before bed, etc.) that will allow sex to occur in a more natural and spontaneous way.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD, is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.

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