Survival of the species depends on sex, so we have evolved to find intimate encounters pleasurable. But what is the role of sex in happiness and well-being, and why do some sexual experiences make us happier than others?
Virginia Lewis and DiAnne Borders (Lewis and Borders 1995) found sexual satisfaction to be the second strongest predictor of life satisfaction for single middle-aged professional women, after job satisfaction.
Why Should We Study Sex?Sex seems both to contribute to and reflect how happy we are in a relationship. A mismatch in levels of sexual desire within a couple is associated with poorer relationships (Blais, Sabourin, Boucher and Vallerand 1990 ). And heterosexual women’s feelings of love, trust, passion, intimacy and overall relationship satisfaction have been found to correlate with the frequency and quality of sex (Costa and Brody 2007).
Recent research (Smith 2007) found that people report sexual experiences as more positive when they fulfilled each of the three basic psychological needs proposed by Ryan and Deci:
- Positive sex happens when both partners are interested and actively choose what to do between the sheets. Rather than enacting scripts, by consciously being aware and able to communicate their own authentic desires their need for autonomy was fulfilled.
- Partners who felt they knew what they were doing in the bedroom and were able to develop their sensual repertoire fulfilled the basic need for competence.
- They also felt intimate, desired, loved and respected, fulfilling the need to relate to others.
Most positive psychologists have tended to modestly leave sex undiscussed. But research so far suggests it affects our overall happiness, and chimes with the Indian tantric understanding of sexual expression as an opportunity to experience psychological growth and well-being. When there are studies showing that arousal and orgasm also have positive and vital physiological effects, to advance and embrace a fuller understanding of the good life, it may be time for positive psychologists to be a little less coy.
Blais, M.R., Sabourin, S., Boucher, C., Vallerand, R. J. (1990). Toward a motivational model of couple happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 59, 1021 – 1031.
Costa, R. M., Brody, S. (2007). Women’s relationship quality is associated with specifically penile – vaginal intercourse orgasm and frequency. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Vol. 21, 319 – 327.
Lewis, V.G., Borders, D. L. (1995). Life satisfaction of single middle-aged professional women. Journal of Counselling and Development, Vol. 74, 93 – 100.
Smith, V. ( 2007 ). In pursuit of good sex: Self determination and the sexual experience. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Vol.24, 69 – 85.
:] (EXPLORED AT #1) courtesy of Jane Rahman
Excellent posting Cassie. There seems to be a lack of research on “positive relationships” in general, not just intimate ones, so well done for raising the subject and raising the bar!
Good sex is one of the most pleasurable experiences imaginable. Your are so right to urge positive psychologists to speak frankly and seriously about, and with humor.
There are dark sides to sexual pleasure, however, which no doubt have much to do with anti-sex attitudes and prudery.
First off, exciting, even thrilling, sex is not necessarily associated with good relationships. Sex (good or bad) may be a microcosm of a relationship OR it may simply BE a relationship. When powerful sex exists in an otherwise shallow or indifferent relationship this rarely leads to happiness.
Second, regardless of statistical associations, many couples find their relationships deeply satisfying even after strong sexual interest subsides. Making too much of the importance of sex has been known to CREATE dissatisfaction in one or bvoth partners, leading to infidelity and the eventual destruction of the relationship.
Positive psychology’s role might be to both
a) express pro-hedonic attitudes that encourage sexual pleasure, and
b) express pro-relationship attitudes that assist those in otherwise satisfying relationships to see that they have much to be happy about and much to lose by breaking these relationships up merely to search for better orgasms.
[Harry and Sally discussing orgasms]
Sally Albright: Most women at one time or another have faked it.
Harry Burns: Well, they haven’t faked it with me.
Sally Albright: How do you know?
Harry Burns: Because I know.
Sally Albright: Oh. Right. Thats right. I forgot. Youre a man.
Harry Burns: What was that supposed to mean?
Sally Albright: Nothing. Its just that all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it so you do the math.
Yay! Thank you, Cassie, for encouraging positive psychologists to drop the coyness on this topic. Sex is a natural, though complicated, topic for positive psychology as a field to explore. One of my hopes is that sex will not be viewed pejoratively as “mere pleasure,” since the spectrum of sexual experience touches on much that positive psychology holds dear: relatedness, love, joy, hope, commitment, resilience, creativity. It is my view that sexuality and spirituality are closely, perhaps inextricably linked, and that as we come to understand this better we will get a better grasp of people’s real needs. I even think that the obsession with commodities and consumer goods — and the tendency to turn sex into a commodity — emerges partly from people’s needs for sex, intimacy, spiritual connection, and community not being met. When those needs are met, people don’t need vast quantities of things. In any case, Cassie, thank you for opening the dialogue, and it’s about time!
Has anybody read the book Pornified? Porn has had a tremendously powerful influence upon the average person’s sexuality and I’d like to see an article about positive psychologists discussing porn, while we are on the sex theme. Can pornography be a meaningful, victorious and engaging experience rather than as Iris put it above regarding sex, “merely pleasureable”?
I’ve always thought it funny how some forms of sexuality are taboo and others are sanctioned by culture. Oral sex, for example, comes and goes in popularity. A good wife in ancient Rome never had fellatio with a man, but purchased sex toys routinely. There are dildos in their fine artworks, so clearly shame was not an issue regarding sex toy usage.
I was reading in the Primer on PP that frequent sex is largely correlated with happiness. What kinds precisely, Chris? Can casual sex have a place in a positive lifestyle? Are we referring to monogamous, long-term sexuality? (Can I ask any more questions in one paragraph)???
What if your partner is poor at intercourse? Do you still get the happiness boost? Is, as Seligman put it in AH, there a point of diminishing returns? I hope that subfield of Positive Sexuality takes a pivotal role in answering these kinds of questions, because I bet that I’m not the only one wondering.
Who is probably happier, the Dalai Lama who abstains or a sex addict who indulges copiously but meaningfully, everything else being equal?
How do you cope when you seemingly enjoy sex more than your partner? do you give an ultimatum or just stay frustrated because your own needs are not being met? What do you do if you really love the person but they simply do not meet your needs sexually? This is something I have coped with in my own life I was just curious as to what some advice might be.
Love this. I would love it if positive psychology were to accept and promote the study of compersion (positive feelings regarding others’ joys) the way it already does with compassion (positive feelings regarding others’ suffering). But compersion may be too tied to sex-positive community to be easily accepted as a valid emotion/lens, at least, until positive psychology becomes sex-positive psychology. 🙂