Sex makes us happy because of what happens afterwards, study finds

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Moya Crockett
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Sex makes us happy – except, of course, when it doesn’t. Yes, it might trigger the release of those famously feel-good chemicals, endorphins. But most sexually active women in their 20s and 30s will still have at least one tale to tell of an encounter that left them, once the initial rush had worn off, feeling a whole range of distinctly non-happy emotions: from unsatisfied and irritable to vulnerable, weepy and downright furious.

Examining exactly what kind of sex contributes to our broader sense of wellbeing, and why, has been the goal of a team of psychologists in Switzerland and Canada. They’ve just published their research in a series of studies in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin – and their findings suggest that it’s the affection that comes after sex that makes us happy in the long term.

Psychologists Amy Muise and Anik Debrot, who led the study, say that they wanted to move beyond the usual focus on the “physical or technical aspects of sex, such as experiencing physical pleasure or a release during orgasm”, and examine the impact of “relational aspects”, such as affection, on people’s mood.

In the first, they asked 335 people who were in a romantic relationship about how often they had sex, how satisfied they felt with their lives, and how often they engaged in “affectionate touch, such as cuddling and kissing”, with their partners.

In the second, they recruited both members of 74 romantic couples and asked them similar questions – as well as asking them to report on how often they experienced specific positive emotions, such as joy and awe.

Both surveys showed that couples who were having more frequent sex were also more physically affectionate with one another, which was in turn linked to a more positive mood. (Intriguingly, however, it was only the men in the second study who reported this connection.)

In order to further test their theory, the researchers conducted a third study where they observed 106 couples over 10 days. The couples reported back every day whether they had had sex, been affectionate with their partner, and how happy they felt. Again, the findings confirmed that sex boosted expressions of affection – and this affection was connected to people feeling happier the day after sex, as well as in the immediate aftermath.

In the final study, the psychologists asked couples to report back on their sexual encounters, expressions of affection and feelings of happiness throughout the day. They found that “having sex predicted more affectionate experiences later that day” – and that those affectionate experiences, in turn, led to the couples feeling happier later on.

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What does all this mean, in a nutshell? Essentially, while the physical side of sex is capable of providing an immediate mood boost, it’s the stuff that comes afterwards that really makes us feel good.

And while this study looked at people already in committed relationships, there’s no reason why affection – which, lest we forget, is really just being nice to one another – should be exclusively their domain. Being kind to the person you’re sleeping with is something everyone can manage, after all, whether you’ve been together for several years or one night.

“Our research shows the importance of the emotional or affectionate connection experienced with the partner in understanding why sexual activity is good for you,” say Muise and Debrot. “Affection and the quality of connection with a partner are a crucial part of the positive effects of sex in romantic relationships.”

All together now: aw.