In sex, happiness is partly relative, CU finds


By Clint Talbott

Sex is apparently like income: People are generally happy when they keep pace with the Joneses. They’re even happier if they get a bit more than their peers.

That’s one finding of Tim Wadsworth, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, who recently published the results of a study of how sexual frequency corresponds with happiness.

As with income, the happiness linked with having more sex can rise or fall depending on how individuals believe they measure up to their peers, Wadsworth found.

His paper, “Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People’s Sex Lives are Related to our Sense of Well-Being,” was published in the February edition of Social Indicators Research.

Using national survey data and statistical analyses, Wadsworth found that people reported steadily higher levels of happiness as they reported steadily higher sexual frequency.

But, he also found that even after controlling for their own sexual frequency, people who believed they were having less sex than their peers were unhappier than those who believed they were having as much or more than their peers.

“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, having more sex makes us happy, but thinking that we are having more sex than other people makes us even happier.”

Wadsworth analyzed data from the General Social Survey, which has been taking the “pulse of America” since 1972. All respondents in all years are asked whether they are “very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy.”

The survey has included questions about sexual frequency since 1989. Wadsworth’s sample included 15,386 people who were surveyed between 1993 and 2006.

After controlling for many other factors, including income, education, marital status, health, age, race and other characteristics, respondents who reported having sex at least two to three times a month were 33 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness than those who reported having no sex during the previous 12 months.

The happiness effect appears to rise with frequency. Compared to those who had no sex in the previous year, those reporting a once-weekly frequency were 44 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness. Those reporting having sex two to three times a week are 55 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness.

But having more sex doesn’t always mean a happier life.

Once people reach a frequency of at least four times a week, reported levels of happiness dip slightly.

That could reflect a limitation of the data: The category of four or more times a week includes those who have a near-daily routine and those who have sex, say, 30 times a week. Very frequent sexual experiences could indicate sex addicts or sex workers, two groups that might not be particularly happy, he observed.

Tim Wadsworth, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Photo by Noah Larsen.

While previous research has found a similar relationship between peer income and happiness (supporting the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses,” Wadsworth noted that peer groups’ income differs from sexual frequency in an important way:

Personal income can be inferred by a neighbor’s flashy, new car or home renovation. But sex is a more-cloistered activity. So how do, say, men or women in their 20s know how frequently their peers have sex?

Though sex is a private matter, the mass media and other sources of information provide clues. For instance, Wadsworth noted, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal and The AARP Magazine—with a combined circulation of 30 million—frequently report the results of their own or others’ sex surveys.

Television and film depictions might also play a role, and, Wadsworth writes, “there is plenty of evidence that information concerning normative sexual behavior is learned through discussions within peer groups and friendship networks.”

As a result of this knowledge, if members of a peer group are having sex two to three times a month but believe their peers are on a once-weekly schedule, their probability of reporting a higher level of happiness falls by about 14 percent, Wadsworth found.

Wadsworth, who is also a research associate at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science and whose research interests include the study of happiness generally, began this line of inquiry after stumbling across a 2004 paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics. A pair of researchers claimed that theirs was the first research ever to examine the effect of sex on happiness.

The paper prompted Wadsworth to muse about factors other than the now-well-studied physical benefits of sex that might boost happiness.

“I started wondering how much of this sense of happiness around sex has more to do with sex as a sense of accomplishment” or an affirmation of one’s attractiveness.

“Just as income can provide both purchasing power as well as a sense of pride or self-worth, sex may lead to happiness not just through physical pleasure or emotional connection but because it can reinforce people’s sense that they’re living well, that they’re doing something right. In this sense it becomes an aspect of one’s identity that can be compared with the people around them. When the result of the comparison is positive, it increases happiness, and when it is negative it decreases it.”

Wadsworth noted that the data do not necessarily prove that social comparisons cause the effects he observed.

However: “I can’t think of a better explanation for why how much sex other people are having would influence a person’s happiness.” Social comparison is so pervasive in society that it’s the best way to account for “a strong statistical pattern showing that there’s both a positive effect of one’s own sexual behavior but also a negative effect of other people’s sexual frequency.”

Wadsworth believes his is the first study to examine the social-comparison phenomenon in the context of sex. Most scholarly study of social comparisons as a means through which people evaluate the quality of their lives has been limited to income, he added.

The economist Richard Easterlin, known for his work on income and happiness, found evidence of social comparison in this realm. People who make more money tend to report higher levels of happiness. But as people make more money over time, they don’t seem to get much happier.

“While it’s still under debate, there’s certainly a strong argument that at least part of the income-happiness relationship is not absolute but is relative,” Wadsworth said. “So if my income is increasing, it should make me happy, but if everybody else’s income is increasing, in some sense it counteracts the effect of my own income.”

Compelling evidence indicates that “as far as happiness goes, income really matters in that we need to be making more than whomever we’re comparing ourselves to.”

For that reason, the way most people engage in social comparison can be “problematic,” Wadsworth noted. “We’re usually not looking down and therefore thinking of ourselves as better off, but we’re usually looking up and therefore feeling insufficient and inadequate.”

On the other hand, people are social creatures and any sense of self or identity is dependent on others. In his introductory sociology classes, Wadsworth asks students to write down three adjectives, any adjectives, to describe themselves.

“And then I ask them, ‘Do your adjectives have any meaning whatsoever if you’re alone on a desert island, in the sense that there’s no one to compare yourself to?’”

Regardless of the adjective—attractive, smart, funny, poor—“These things are meaningful only if there’s some sense of what other people are like. As such, we can only be wealthy if others are poor or sexually active if others are inactive.”

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