by Leah Fessler
People who have sex more frequently report a greater sense of general happiness, according to numerous studies. One even found that having sex once a week, as opposed to monthly, boosts spirits more than earning an extra $50,000 per year.
Yet the sex-happiness association means nothing if we don’t know why it exists. New research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin sheds some light on the matter: Sex itself isn’t what makes us happier, it’s about the snuggles we share before, during, and after.
“We demonstrated that an important reason why sex is associated with well-being is that it promotes the experience of affection with the partner,” says University of Toronto postdoctoral fellow Anik Debrot, the study’s co-author. “Thus, the quality of the bond with the partner is essential to understand the benefits of sex.”
The new research actually comprises four separate studies. In the first two, researchers evaluated the correlation between sex and well-being through cross-sectional surveys of people in romantic relationships. In the first, 335 people (138 men, 197 women) in the US (predominantly married and straight) reported how frequently they have sex and engage in “affectionate touching” (e.g. cuddling, kissing, caressing). They also rated their “life satisfaction” on a one to five scale. The second was similar, but asked 74 couples in San Francisco’s Bay Area to rate their tendency to feel positive emotions such as joy, contentment, pride, amusement, and awe.
Both confirmed that more sexual activity correlates with increased positivity and life satisfaction. However, the association between sex and general happiness was dependent on affectionate touching, meaning that when the researchers accounted for for affectionate touching in their predictive model, the association between sex frequency and life satisfaction was insignificant. These results held steady regardless of participants’ age, relationship duration, and relationship status.
The third and fourth studies took a “Dear diary” approach—participants recorded their emotional state and sexual and affectionate activity on digital devices throughout the day, for several days. The third assessed 106 Swiss couples over ten days, 88% of which were married, and all of which had a child under age eight. It checked in on them six months later. The fourth included 58 Swiss couples, the majority of which were university students.
These daily diary studies showed that on days when people have sex, they experienced more affection and positive emotions immediately after sex, and hours later. “We could also show that sex promotes positive emotions, but that positive emotions do not increase the odds of having sex,” Debrot explains, “This indicates that people seem to feel good because they have sex, but not that they have sex because they feel good.” This finding supports the conclusion that affection—which has been proven to promote psychological and physiological wellbeing outside the sexual realm—is key to coital pleasure.
More, as Debrot explains, previous studies have found that positive talks often occur after sex, that exchanging signs of affection after sex means sexual and relationship satisfaction increases, and that frequent assurance of commitment and love after sex is the best predictor of a good relationship.
Importantly, participants who felt more positive emotions (like joy and optimism) after having sex with their partner in the ten-day study also showed higher relationship satisfaction six months later. This long-term correlation, however, only held true when participants experienced positive emotions after sex, regardless of how frequently they were sexually active.
This type of research always required some external imposition, and it’s impossible to determine exactly what about sex makes us happier. But it makes one reality clear: Sex promotes affection, and affection makes us feel good in the immediate, short, and long-term. And while more frequent sex is proven to make us feel better, prescribing participants to have more frequent sex on its own doesn’t help.
So if you’re looking to increase personal or relationship happiness (and a $50k bonus isn’t quite on the table) your best bet may be simple: Be attentive to your partners’ sexual and emotional needs, allow enough space and time for intimacy, and express your attraction and love before, during, after sex.
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