Sex makes us happy. More sex makes us happier. But a newly published study suggests that having more sex than we think other people are having makes us happiest of all.
In a recent issue of Social Indicators Research, sociologist Tim Wadsworth concludes that sex is a little like income*: the more of it people have, the happier they tend to say they are. By examining responses from more than 15,000 participants in the nationally representative General Social Survey, Wadsworth found that people who reported having sex regularly were more likely to report a higher level of happiness (on the rather amusing scale of "very happy, pretty happy or not too happy") than those who'd gone a year or more without any sex at all.
Survey participants who claimed to be having sex 2–3 times a month were 33% more likely to report higher levels of happiness. Participants having sex once a week were 44% more likely to report higher levels of happiness than those in the midst of a year-or-more dry spell. And those who reported having sex 2–3 times per week were 55% more likely to report higher levels of happiness. The numbers suggest that self-reported happiness tends to increase along with monthly nookie numbers.
But there's one big caveat: it's all relative. Wadsworth also found that self-reported happiness depended more on how much sex you thought other people were having than how much time you, yourself, were spending dancing the mattress jig. For instance, Wadsworth found that when people having sex thrice monthly believe their friends and peers are getting it on once a week, their probability of reporting a higher level of happiness falls by about 14%. If other words: if you think other people are having more sex than you, there's a chance it'll drag down your happiness.
“There’s an overall increase in sense of well-being that comes with engaging in sex more frequently, but there’s also this relative aspect to it,” said Wadsworth in a statement. “Having more sex makes us happy, but thinking that we are having more sex than other people makes us even happier.”
He goes on to concede that social comparisons may not be behind the effects he's observed, but that he "can't think of a better explanation for why how much sex other people are having would influence a person's happiness." After all, he says, we are social creatures. The vast majorities of our identities are defined within a social context.
Does this mean you should try to increase your happiness by trying to have more sex than your friends? Hardly. In fact, a better tactic might be to ignore their sex lives altogether.
The conflation of relative sexual activity with happiness (and the overarching social awareness that Wadsworth mentions), calls to mind a review co-authored in 2011 by Yale psychologist June Gruber, wherein she concludes that, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, one of the best things you can do is stop trying to be happy.
Gruber and her colleagues explain that when you actively pursue happiness (making an effort to have as much sex or more than you think your peers are having, for example) "with the motivation or expectation that these things [you're doing] ought to make you happy," it can, paradoxically, "lead to disappointment and decreased happiness." The solution, then, is zen-like: to be happy, stop trying to be happy. Similarly, it seems that being less conscious of your sex life relative to the sex lives of others may be a more fundamental path to happiness than trying to keep up with the Jones' – and that's advice that extends well beyond the bedroom.
Wadsworth's paper, "Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People's Sex Lives are Related to our Sense of Well-Being," is published in Social Indicators Research.
*Before someone gets on my case about this: The relationship between money and happiness (like the definition of something like "happiness," in and of itself) is a contentious one. Some of the latest studies on money's role as a social and/or psychological determinant of happiness have shown that self-reports of happiness do appear to increase in line with annual income, but that the effects seem to peter out as you approach a given salary. A recent study out of Princeton put that figure at $75,000/year.