Sex has long been linked to a lengthened life and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. But new research suggests that it may have powerful emotional benefits, too: it seems to strengthen the bonds of relationships and adds happiness and meaning to life.
A recent paper published in the journal Emotion by Todd Kashdan and his colleagues at George Mason University used daily diaries to examine the link between sexual behavior and wellbeing. 152 college students were asked to keep a record of their sexual behaviors, emotions and feelings every day for three weeks. People’s wellbeing was measured by their positive feelings, mood and how meaningful they felt that their life was each day.
People were happier and found more meaning in their lives the day after any kind of sexual activity, from deep kissing to sexual intercourse, the researchers found. This link did not depend on how satisfying or intimate the experience was, or whether they were in a relationship. Any sort of sexual experience seems to improve well-being. However, the opposite was not true; happiness did not predict more sexual behavior in their analysis, which bolsters their claim that the link between sex and wellbeing is due to the sex itself.
Humans’ fundamental need to belong is likely at the root of the effect, Kashdan says, and sexual contact is a communication of acceptance and social inclusion from those with whom we are intimate. “There is something profound about someone else giving you access to their body and accepting access to yours,” Kashdan says. This experience of vulnerability and acceptance can be a powerful signal of inclusion that improves emotional health.
Other research by Kashdan points to a link between sex and social inclusion. Using a similar method of daily diaries, people recorded their sexual experiences, worries of being judged by others and feelings of inferiority. The day after a pleasurable sexual experience, those with clinical levels of social anxiety seemed to show a greater benefit from sex than those with low social anxiety; they responded very similarly to people without social anxiety when reporting their symptoms. Compared to days when they hadn’t been sexual, they were less concerned with how people viewed them and held themselves in higher esteem, suggesting that sex may foster a sense of social acceptance.
But a person’s relationship with their sexual partner matters, too, the new study found. When all participants were asked to rate how “close and connected” they felt to their partner during sex, that rating did not accurately predict wellbeing the next day, and the finding wasn’t statistically significant. However, when examining those in romantic relationships, additional feelings of wellbeing did come from especially satisfying and intimate sexual contact but they depend on the strength of the romantic relationship overall. Intimate and satisfying sex increases wellbeing in people in all types of relationships, but especially for those in closer, more loving relationships, possibly because sex in closer relationships strengthens bonds and increases feelings acceptance to a greater degree. It’s this reaffirmation and benevolence upon leaving the bedroom that is beneficial to a close relationship, Kashdan says.
Across all types of relationships, sex is an important therapeutic way of enhancing wellbeing and connecting with a partner, Kashdan says. It’s a powerful potential antidote to loneliness or social isolation—a “therapy without therapists,” he says. When social bonds are more important than ever, one solution may lie in the bedroom.