By Heather Oliveria

Couples skipping in the streets, whistling, and smelling the roses are a few of the ways that media portrays the after-effects of sex. Although exaggerated, those examples resonate with us. Despite our familiarity with images of happy people with lifted moods post-sex, there has been little research examining how sex contributes to well-being [1]. A recent study, led by Todd Kashdan and colleagues, sought to understand the relationship between sex and well-being [1].

We know that sex is commonly a pleasurable experience which reinforces our desire to engage in sex and to seek it more often [2]. When enjoying sex, our bodies release hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine, which are linked to increased positive mood and decreased stress response [3, 4]. Having sex with another person can also contribute to one’s sense of belonging and can bolster feelings of self-worth [5]. Yet, it is unclear whether sex increases well-being or whether people with greater well-being have more sex.

To answer this question, Kashdan et al. asked participants who were either single, in long-term or in short-term relationships to complete daily surveys for three weeks. They predicted that there would be a positive association between sexual activity and well-being. In other words, that sex and well-being are related and that as one increases so will the other. To determine the association between sexual activity and well-being, they investigated whether sexual behaviour affected well-being the following day.

Participants completed daily diaries tracking their sexual activity, level of intimacy, and how much pleasure they felt during sex. To measure well-being, the researchers asked participants to record their positive and negative emotions and how meaningful they felt their life was. Using the daily diary data, researchers examined whether the sexual activity, intimacy, and pleasure ratings predicted positive and negative mood levels the following day.

Results revealed that engaging in sexual activity led to benefits in well-being. Specifically, participants reported greater well-being on the day following sex compared to participants who did not have sex the previous day. Those who had sex on the previous day also reported higher levels of positive emotion and lower levels of negative emotion. This finding was only in one direction, meaning that sexual activity predicted a higher sense of well-being but higher levels of well-being did not predict sexual activity. Furthermore, the quality of sex mattered. Those who rated their sexual experience as highly pleasurable and intimate had the highest ratings of well-being the following day. Participants who were in committed romantic relationships and rated their partnership high in intimacy also had high levels of well-being on days following sex compared to participants who were single or in short-term relationships.

What does this mean? The results of this study show the importance of studying sex in relation to well-being. This study identified another understudied area–intimacy–which could lead to greater gains in well-being after partnered sex. Future research should continue to look at what effect sex has on well-being in the long term to determine if there are lasting effects on well-being over time. Research should continue to look at how sex is related to well-being and how it might improve our romantic relationships, overall happiness, quality and meaning of life.

References

[1] Kashdan, T. B., Goodman, F. R., Stiksma, M., Milius, C. R., & McKnight, P. E. (2017). Sexuality leads to boosts in mood and meaning in life with no evidence for the reverse direction: A daily diary investigation. Emotion, 18(4), 563-576. doi:10.1037/emo0000324

[2] Stanley, S. M. (1975). Clades versus clones in evolution: Why we have sex. Science, 190, 382–383. doi:10.1126/science.1179214

[3] Meston, C. M., & Frohlich, P. F. (2000). The neurobiology of sexual function. Archives of General Psychiatry, 57, 1012–1030. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.57.11.1012

[4] Kashdan, T. B., Farmer, A. S., Adams, L. M., Ferssizidis, P., McKnight, P. E., & Nezlek, J. B. (2013). Distinguishing healthy adults from people with social anxiety disorder: Evidence for the value of experiential avoidance and positive emotions in everyday social interactions. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122, 645–655. doi:10.103733

[5] Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (2001). The social dimension of sex. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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