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Can We Have Too Much Sex?

John Updike famously said, "Sex is like money; only too much is enough.” But recent psychological studies indicate otherwise: while regular sex is vital in most relationships to promote intimacy and foster happiness, more is not always better.

LONDON – “Sex is like money,” John Updike wrote, “only too much is enough.” As it turns out, that is not strictly true, at least not in the context of monogamous relationships. So how much sex is enough? In 2015, a group of University of Toronto-based psychologists set out to find out.

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In their study, “Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better,” Amy Muise, Ulrich Schimmack, and Emily Impett revealed that there is, in fact, a precise rate of sex that, for the average couple, optimally benefits the partners’ wellbeing: once per week.

The study found that the difference in wellbeing for people in relationships who engage in sex once per week, compared with those who have sex less than once per month, was greater than the difference in wellbeing for those earning $75,000 versus those making $25,000. In other words, having sex four times as much boosted participants’ moods as much as an additional $50,000 per year would do.

But, just as having sex too infrequently can leave couples less happy, having sex too frequently can end up being more stressful than pleasurable, particularly if busy couples feel under pressure to do so. Yet such pressure – stemming, at least partly, from social expectations and comparisons – is very real.

The University of Colorado sociologist Tim Wadsworth, in his 2014 study, “Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People’s Sex Lives are Related to our Sense of Well-Being,” repeats Updike’s assertion that sex is like money. But, in Wadsworth’s argument, what they have in common is that they both derive value from comparison.

As Wadsworth points out, past research has shown that it is not absolute income levels that determine happiness, but rather income levels relative to those around you – the colleagues, neighbors, former classmates, and others who form your reference group. That is why a rising income does not necessarily bring a corresponding increase in happiness: it is crucial that the incomes of one’s reference group aren’t also rising.

Similarly, Wadsworth’s survey found that respondents who believe that they have more sex than their reference group are happier, while those who believe that their cohorts are having more sex than them are less content. Wadsworth therefore concludes that happiness is positively correlated with one’s own sexual frequency, but negatively correlated with the sexual frequency of others.

But, beyond a certain point – roughly once per week, apparently – the benefits that a couple derives from sex wane. This suggests that there is more to the relationship between sex and happiness than keeping up with the Joneses. And, in fact, by putting pressure on couples to have sex as often as possible, the sense of competition may be doing more harm than good.

A recent study – “More Than Just Sex: Affection Mediates the Association Between Sexual Activity and Well-Being” – offers a novel theory regarding the link between sex and happiness. Its authors – Anik Debrot, Nathalie Meuwly, Amy Muise, Emily Impett, and Dominik Schoebi – contend that the true power of sex in a relationship lies in the capacity of sex to foster a stronger connection between partners through shared affection, not just shared pleasure.

The authors even suggest that sex and affection could compensate for each other in supporting wellbeing, with increased affection counterbalancing reductions in sexual activity during some life phases, such as just after childbirth – a period sometimes associated with higher risk for infidelity in male partners. The idea is that more alternative expressions of affection may help to sustain wellbeing, thereby decreasing the temptation to stray (though, because men generally report higher sexual desire, they may rely more on sex as a way of experiencing affection than the average woman does).

It seems that psychology may rebut Updike’s dictum that only too much sex is enough. In fact, while regular sex is vital to promote intimacy and foster happiness through shared affection, more is not always better. So sex may be like money, but only in that too little is bad.

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