Media often bombard us with messages claiming sex and happiness go hand in hand. Cosmopolitan, for one, has essentially built its brand upon glorifying sex as the key to earthly delight, with headlines like “106 Minutes of Sex a Day Makes You Happy.” But according to a recent study from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), this truism may need to be reconsidered.
A survey sample of over 30,000 strong found the relationship between the frequency of getting freaky and overall wellbeing is curvilinear, not linear as we had all assumed. In other words, you can indeed have too much of a good thing — happiness peaked when correlated to sex once a week, plateaued, and then actually began to decrease when sex occurred over three times weekly.
The team found flagrant romping unnecessary for a healthy relationship. “We suspected that at a certain frequency engaging in more frequent sex would no longer be associated with greater happiness,” said Amy Muise, a social psychologist at UTM who led the research. Instead, they suggest having sex once a week can provide maximum levels of happiness for the average couple.
These results fly in the face of pop-cultural exhortations to have sex on a daily basis. Yet their findings seem to align neatly with basic economic theory. Specifically, the law of diminishing marginal utility states that as a person increases consumption of a product, there is a decrease in the benefit they derive.
Indeed, the UTM study cited other findings in positive psychology that showed typical benefits, such as socializing with friends, also lacked a positive linear association with wellbeing. This suggests that even highly beneficial activities ought to be experienced in moderation to maintain an optimal affective state.
As for the quality of sex, Muise told The Varsity she was able to control for this factor in a follow-up analysis. “After accounting for how satisfying the sex is, we still see the same pattern of results,” she wrote.
Yet other studies found that daily sex did not correlate to a drop in happiness. Researchers in Australia, who looked at a sample of about 3,800 adults, showed that having sex about once a week was actually correlated to less happiness than having sex once a day.
When asked about the conflict in findings, Zhiming Cheng, one of the researchers behind the Australian study, indicated that cross-national comparison might be unwise.
“Comparing results from different countries is difficult because sexual activities are related to a wide range of cultural and socioeconomic factors,” Cheng explains. “It is particularly difficult to tell why using social surveys that were primarily designed for different contexts.”
It is also important to note Muise’s results were pulled from an observational study, so the curvilinear association they found merely shows correlation. That is, contrary to the Toronto Star’s coverage of this study — “Sex boosts happiness,” published earlier this month — it is unclear whether having sex at a particular frequency has a causal impact on happiness. Conversely, happiness may plausibly change sexual behaviour, or a third variable, such as health, could affect happiness and frequency both. “It is difficult to tell which causes what,” says Cheng.
A study published earlier this year attempted to manipulate the frequency at which couple’s had sex, in order to establish a causal connection between sex and happiness — but their experimental control had an “unintended adverse effect on the quality of sex.” The directive to have sex, the researchers surmised, led to decreases in sex drive and satisfaction overall.
Muise could not comment on the possibility of libido disparity between partners affecting happiness. “It is possible that couples may have a frequency that is a compromise between partners’ desired frequency and this helps to maximize well-being for both,” she says.
Conflicting results, cultural divides, and logistical hurdles all contribute to the difficulties of establishing truths in sex research.
Muise and her teams’ conclusion was more tempered than headlines around the world would lead us to believe. Instead of prescribing a fixed standard for sex, the team offered sensible advice. “If couples are engaging in sex frequently enough to feel satisfied with their relationship,” they concluded simply, “they are optimizing well-being.”