Conventional wisdom holds that more sex equals more happiness, but a new study out of Carnegie Mellon (published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization) suggests that this belief isn't necessarily true — and that couples may, in fact, need to beware the opposite effect. Perhaps surprisingly, the study is the first to look at the causal rather than correlational relationship between how often couples have sex and how happy they are.
Researchers recruited 128 healthy individuals between 35 and 65 years old. Together, these participants made up 64 male-female married couples. The couples were divided into two groups, with the first not given any directive on their sex lives and the second instructed to have twice as much sex as they usually did per week. Over a three-month period, researchers measured couples' happiness and sexual satisfaction with an initial baseline survey followed by daily online questionnaires about how much and what kind of sex they were having, how much they were enjoying it, and how happy they were. Lo and behold, the couples having more sex experienced a small but noticeable decrease in their desire for and enjoyment of sex, as well as their overall happiness. The other couples experienced no difference.
So, what was going on here? The researchers posit that it wasn't necessarily having more sex in and of itself that decreased couples' sexual enjoyment or happiness (though it's possible that when couples have sex more frequently, they appreciate individual sessions somewhat less and have less time to work up some lust in between — like a law of diminishing returns for getting down). Instead, the sexed-up couples may have resented being instructed to hook up regardless of whether they were in the mood.
It's not hard to imagine that sex is a lot less sexy when it's the result of a researcher's instructions rather than, say, a steamy text exchange. "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," George Loewenstein, PhD, the study's lead investigator, commented.
High thread counts may not be everyone's prerequisite for a good time, but Dr. Loewenstein makes an important observation. Even if a couple wants to have more sex than they currently do, merely setting a frequency goal — one closer to the amount of sex they had at the beginning of their relationship, for example — could be missing the point. Intimacy may be likelier to lead to sex than the other way around. The beginning of a relationship often features more free time with one another and a more intense romantic connection; long-term couples might do well to create situations and environments that encourage more sex (think unplugging for the evening to focus on each other, or making breakfast together one morning instead of hurriedly leaving for work) rather than shooting for a certain number of times per week.
And, of course, the best way to get on the same page about how often you'd like to have sex is to talk about it. Whether you hold the conversation between Egyptian sheets is up to you.
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