Many studies have found that people who have more sex are more likely to be happy. Therefore, logically, if you have more sex you will become happier, right? Not according to a controlled trial that provides a rather dismal example of why correlation is not always causation.
It's easy to fall for the logic that since most people find sex fun, and extensive studies have found frequency correlates with happiness, that all we need to do to be happier is have more sex. But it ain't necessarily so. For one thing, causation can run both ways: maybe people who are happier have more sex. Or perhaps other things, like good health or being in love, make us happier and also increase the amount of sex we have.
To resolve this, a scientific study was clearly needed, and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University persuaded some volunteers to lay their bodies down for science. The researchers recruited 64 married heterosexual couples aged 35-65 and asked a randomly assigned group to count how often they had been having sex recently, and to double it for three months. The control group was left to carry on as they pleased.
A survey of the participants' happiness was conducted at the start and end, while during the experiment daily online surveys of health and happiness were given, along with questions about their sexual experiences.
The couples followed orders, but we've already given you the spoiler: The couples who were having more sex were not happier. In fact, they were slightly less happy, the authors report in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.
The problem, somewhat predictably, was that sex without desire isn't actually that much fun. The participants in the double sex group reported enjoying sex less and feeling less desire. What had been pleasure became a chore. The findings are particularly relevant for those who argue “desire can be switched on” for the sake of marital bliss with someone more enthusiastic. Their partners might end up happier, but there is unlikely to be a net gain.
"Perhaps couples changed the story they told themselves about why they were having sex, from an activity voluntarily engaged in to one that was part of a research study,” lead author Professor George Loewenstein said.
Nevertheless, Loewenstein believes more sex can increase happiness, it just has to be prompted in the right ways. “If we ran the study again, and could afford to do it, we would try to encourage subjects into initiating more sex in ways that put them in a sexy frame of mind, perhaps with baby-sitting, hotel rooms or Egyptian sheets, rather than directing them to do so," he says.
On the other hand, given that decreased sexual desire in middle-aged individuals has been shown to relate to lack of intimacy, overwork, lack of sleep and anxiety about money, maybe future studies could look at reducing these factors.