The suggestion that sex boosts happiness has been made time and time again both in research papers and popular writing on the subject, such as self-help books. Now, a new study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, goes against conventional wisdom to cast doubt on the theory that the more sex we have, the happier we are.

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The researchers believe that the group instructed to have more sex reported lower levels of happiness because the couples were required to have more sex as part of the study, rather than them initiating it naturally.

In 2013, a study published in Social Indicators Research found that people reported steadily higher levels of happiness with increasing sexual frequency. And people who believed they were having less sex than their peers reported being less happy than those who believed they were having as much or more sex than their peers.

That study found that people who had sex once a week were 44% more likely to report a higher level of happiness compared with peers who had no sex in the previous year, and people who had sex up to three times a week were 55% more likely to report higher levels of happiness.

While the team behind the 2013 study used national survey data and statistical analyses to arrive at its conclusions, the Carnegie Mellon (CMU) researchers behind the new study recruited 128 healthy, married individuals between the ages of 35 and 65 who were in male-female couples in an attempt to investigate how sexual frequency affects happiness,.

The couples were randomly assigned into either a group that was asked to double the frequency of their weekly sexual intercourse or a group that received no instructions on sexual frequency.

At the start of the study – the results of which are published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization – the participants completed surveys to establish baselines on health behaviors, happiness levels and occurrence, type and pleasure received from sex.

The couples also completed online questionnaires measuring these variables every day during the 3-month experimental period of the study. An exit survey was also completed to compare against the baseline results.

The CMU team found that the couples instructed to have more sex reported a small decrease in happiness, lower sexual desire and decreased enjoyment from sex.

However, the researchers believe that this lowered happiness was not simply caused by having more sex, but by the fact the couples were required to have more sex as part of the study, without them initiating it naturally.

George Loewenstein, the study’s lead investigator and the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, explains:

Perhaps couples changed the story they told themselves about why they were having sex, from an activity voluntarily engaged in to one that was part of a research study. If we ran the study again, and could afford to do it, we would try to encourage subjects into initiating more sex in ways that put them in a sexy frame of mind, perhaps with babysitting, hotel rooms or Egyptian sheets, rather than directing them to do so.”

Interestingly, Prof. Loewenstein believes that the majority of couples have less sex than is good for them and considers increasing sexual frequency to be beneficial for most couples.

“The desire to have sex decreases much more quickly than the enjoyment of sex once it’s been initiated,” adds Tamar Krishnamurti, a research scientist in CMU’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy.

“Instead of focusing on increasing sexual frequency to the levels they experienced at the beginning of a relationship,” elaborates Krishnamurti, “couples may want to work on creating an environment that sparks their desire and makes the sex that they do have even more fun.”