Positive psychology focuses on the aspects of our psychology that make us happy, that gives us fulfillment, that makes life worth living, that give life meaning. Having fulfilling relationships, displaying gratitude, having self-compassion, and showing generosity and compassion to others are often cited as things which give people a positive outlook on life. Recently, a team of psychologists from George Mason University have run a study on sex to determine if sex has a similar positive effect on people’s worldview and sense of meaning.
The researchers from GMU did a three-week study which involved examining people’s reported sex quality and frequency along with their mood and general outlook on life. The three-week-long diary study found that there were notable correlations between both quality and frequency of sex and a person’s mood/fulfillment.
Intimacy And Sexual Activity
The researchers enlisted 152 college students (35 men, 116 women) who averaged 24 years of age. Approximately 63% of the students who participated in the study were in committed, monogamous romantic relationships. The students were instructed to keep a diary every night for three weeks, and to write down any negative or positive moods, any sexual activity that they had, how intimate/pleasurable the experience had been, and finally their general sense of fulfillment/meaning in life. As for how “sexual activity” was defined, the researchers left this open-ended. Subjects could interpret this for themselves, whether or not it meant kissing passionately or intercourse.
Previous research into the relationship between sex and happiness has found that individuals who have more sex typically report better moods and well-being, yet most of this evidence was gathered from cross-sectional studies. Cross-sectional data refers to a dataset that was collected through the observation of many different subjects at one particular point in time. The wide swath of data, full of many different variables, made it difficult to discern whether or not sex genuinely made people feel better or if happier people are more likely to have sex (or if the variables are related to one another courtesy another as-yet-unknown variable).
Lead researcher Todd Kashdan and his colleagues set out to try and gain a better understanding of the dynamics between the two concepts, and determine if there was a casual relationship that linked them. Upon analyzing the data, the researchers found that sex on a particular day was correlated with better, more positive mood states the following day. Those who reported experiencing sexual activity also reported that they had a greater overall feeling of meaning in their lives.
Note that moods are distinct from sense of meaning. Moods – positive or negative – are defined by psychologists as a general emotional state or packages of emotions that are transient and relatively temporary. They are prolonged emotions that last for a while and then change, and usually influence one’s whole view of the world. This is distinct from a feeling of satisfaction or fulfillment, which is a more persistent experience that usually encompasses larger aspects of a person’s life such as personal achievements.
The general results were the same for women and men. The researchers explained that meaning in life is frequently brought about when someone feels that their need to belong has been met with another person. Interestingly, the correlation between sex and positive moods didn’t run the other way – a greater perception of meaning in one’s life and better mood weren’t associated with more sex the next day.
It didn’t seem to matter whether or not the people having sex were in committed relationships or not. There was a far stronger effect on overall sense of well-being and meaning, the next day when relationships were described as being more intimate. According to the researchers just being in a committed relationship with someone else “is insufficient to drive benefits and pleasurable activities”. Another notable finding was that increased sexual pleasure, not increased intimacy, was correlated with the better mood the following day.
Challenges And Further Research
There was one finding that challenge the hypothesis that sex is correlated with a greater sense of well-being and better mood. Those who had been in a relationship with someone for just a short time actually experienced more negative mood states the following day after experiencing sexual activity. The research team suggests that this finding could be a “regression to the mean”, a return to base levels of well-being. The researchers argue that this is because those who have recently started a relationship show more responsiveness to daily pleasurable activities. In other words, ” on the day they had sex, negative affect is probably lower and the change to the next day is greater”.
The fact that the study relies solely on college students is a limiting factor. The sex lives, relationships, and general experiences of college students can be quite different from the lives of people in other age demographics. The three-week-long study also only samples a small section of someone’s life. Despite this, the team of researchers believe the study is important. Kashdan explains the study’s importance:
To understand the full scope of human flourishing, research on well-being needs to incorporate more rigorous scientific inquiries of sexual behaviour.
There is a large body of research on sexuality that focuses on the more negative aspects of sex, such as intimacy problems, obsession/preoccupation, and abuse, yet positive research on sex is somewhat lacking.
Given that the relationship between sex and positive outlook is largely unexplored, and given the limitations of the study, more research will have to be done to see if the findings hold true across other sectors of the population and to further tease out the relationships between sex and mood/meaning.
For instance, the role of intimacy could play a larger role than currently thought. Sex, where there is a lack of intimacy, or the presence of shame/guilt, such as one night stands or affairs, may not produce the same positive results. As the researchers noted, activities that build intimacy between people often give one a sense of belonging or purpose. It’s also not clear how the frequency of the sex might affect people’s outlook, as sexual activity that is constant could see diminishing returns in terms of mood improvement. As more research into the relationship between positive social/emotional development and sexuality occurs, more of these questions will be answered.