A study conducted on college students has found that having sex is associated with both a positive mood and an increased sense of meaning in life the next day.
For anyone who remembers being (or currently is) a late teens or early twenties adult with a healthy sex drive, these results are not exactly shocking. But within the field of peer-reviewed psychology research, the impact of intimate activities on mental health and satisfaction has remained largely unexplored.
“Sex is rarely discussed in theories of well-being and rarely empirically examined using methods other than cross-sectional surveys,” the team from George Mason University wrote in the journal Emotion.
To fill this gap in knowledge, lead author Todd Kashdan and his colleagues asked 152 students to keep a daily diary for three weeks, tracking how meaningful their lives felt since the last entry, changing moods, and any sexual activity with a partner. A wide variety of activities could fall under this umbrella, and the authors instructed subjects to record the level of pleasure and intimacy of each encounter.
The average age of the cohort was 24, 116 subjects were women, and 63 percent of the total reported that they were in monogamous relationships.
An analysis of the content revealed the aforementioned pearls of insight and suggested that the positive next-day effects of sex are more intense after episodes of higher sexual pleasure and intimacy. Interestingly, whether or not subjects were in a committed relationship did not predict whether their sex would lead to greater psychological benefit. Relationship closeness, on the other hand, was the strongest predictor, leading the authors to conclude that “simply being in a committed relationship is insufficient to derive benefits from pleasurable activities.”
Next, the team sought to confirm causality by examining if the good sex participants had was potentially merely the result of being in a cheery mood prior to their encounters – after all, it is logical that people radiating positivity would be more appealing to potential partners.
“When the reverse direction was tested, well-being did not predict next-day sexual activity, pleasure, or intimacy. These results suggest a unidirectional relationship in which the presence and quality of sexual activity lead to gains in well-being the following day,” they noted.
Future studies featuring longer follow-up time and involving subjects of different ages would help paint a more complete picture of the psychological effects of sex, yet despite this study’s limitations, the authors are confident in its value.
“These data provide evidence to support the continual consideration of sex in empirical work and theoretical models of elements that comprise healthy relationships and a good life,” they said.