A growing literature suggests that income, marriage, friendship, sex, and a variety of other factors influence self-reported happiness. Why these characteristics matter has been less examined. Scholars have recently demonstrated that part of the effect of income is relative. More income makes people happier, in part, because it sets them above their peers. Until now, the role of relative comparison in the study of happiness has been limited to income. The current work extends this focus to another activity—sex. Using GSS data, I examine how respondents’ frequency of sex, as well as the average sexual frequency of their cohort, influences their happiness. The findings suggest that happiness is positively correlated with their own sexual frequency, but inversely correlated with the sexual frequency of others.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
To the degree that individuals evaluate and compare their sex lives to the sex lives of others, it is likely that both frequency as well as quality is considered. Given data restrictions, I have no way of measuring quality in the present research. It should also be noted that information about quality is generally much less available to individuals, and thus may play a smaller role in social comparisons.
The sexual frequency question was asked to about half of the respondents in 1990 and was not included in the survey in 1992. During all of the other post 1988 waves of data collection the sexual frequency question was included in most of the interviews.
“Duchenne” smiles involve the contraction of muscles that both raise the corners of the mouth and the cheeks. They are often treated as the expression of genuine emotions because few people can voluntarily contract the outer portion of the orbicularis oculi muscle, which is responsible for raising the cheeks.
While respondents from the previous 5 years were used in the estimation of reference groups, as the GSS was only administered every 2 years, the estimates are actually based on 2 or 3 waves of respondents.
Given the structure of the sexual frequency categories in most surveys, the high values are right censored. For instance in the GSS, respondents who reported engaging in sex 4 times a week would be in the same category as those reporting having sex 25 times a week. Thus, one female outlier could move several males into a higher category. Blanchflower and Oswald (2004) suggest that the gender distribution of prostitutes and their customers may partially explain this pattern.
Another common practice is to multiply the lower bound of the upper category by 1.5 and to impute this value as the midpoint (Firebaugh and Tach 2008). Substituting this value had no effect on the substantive findings reported below.
Amato, P., Loomis, L., & Booth, A. (1995). Parental divorce, marital conflict, and offspring well-being during early adulthood. Social Forces, 73, 895–915.
Andre, T., Frevert, R. L., & Schuchmann, D. (1989). From whom have college students learned what about sex. Youth and Society, 20(3), 241–268.
Argyle, M. (1989). The psychology of happiness. London: Routledge.
Bielay, G., & Herold, E. S. (1995). Popular magazines as a source of sexual information for university women. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 4, 247–261.
Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2004). Money, sex and happiness: An empirical study. Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 106(3), 393–415.
Blau, J. R., & Blau, P. M. (1982). Metropolitan structure and violent crime. American Sociological Review, 47, 114–128.
Brant, R. F. (1990). Assessing proportionality in the proportional odds model for ordinal logistic regression. Biometrics, 46, 1171–1178.
Brody, S. (2006). Blood pressure reactivity to stress is better for people who recently had penile-vaginal intercourse than for people who had other or no sexual activity. Biological Psychology, 71(2), 214–222.
Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.
Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1988). Personality in adulthood: A six year longitudinal study of self-reports and spouse ratings on the neo personality inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 853–863.
Dolan, P., Peasgood, T., & White, M. (2008). Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29, 94–122.
Easterlin, R. (1974). Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. In P. A. David & M. W. Reder (Eds.), Nations and households in economic growth: Essays in honour of Moses Abramowitz. New York: Academic Press.
Easterlin, R. (2001). Income and happiness: Towards a unified theory. Economic Journal, 111, 465–484.
Easterlin, R. A. (2003). Explaining happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(19), 11176–11183.
Eckman, P., Davidson, R. J., & Friesen, W. V. (1990). The Duchenne smile: Emotional expression and brain physiology, II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 342–353.
Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison process. Human Relations, 57, 117–140.
Firebaugh, G., & Schroeder, M. B. (2008). Does your neighbor’s income affect your happiness?. Mimeo: Departmental of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University.
Firebaugh, G., & Tach, L. (2008). Income, age and happiness in America. In P. V. Marsden (Ed.), Social trends in the United States 1972–2006: Evidence from the General Social Survey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fischer, C. S. (2008). What wealth-happiness paradox? A short note on the American case. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 2190226.
Graham, C., & Pettinato, S. (2002). Frustrated achievers: Winners, losers and subjective well-being in new market economies. Journal of Development Studies, 38, 100–149.
Haring-Hidore, M., Stock, W. A., Okun, M. A., & Witter, R. A. (1985). Marital status and subjective well-being: A research synthesis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 47, 947–953.
Hout, M. (2004) Getting the most out of the GSS income measures. GSS Methodological Report 101.
Hyman, H. H. (1960). Reflections on reference groups. Public Opinion Quarterly, 24, 383–396.
Johnson, G. J., & Johnson, R. W. (1995). Subjective underemployment and job satisfaction. International Review of Modern Sociology, 25(1), 73–84.
Keltner, D., & Harker, L. (2001). Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 112–124.
Larsen, R. J., Diener, E. D., & Emmons, R. A. (1984). An evaluation of subjective well-being measures. Social Indicators Research, 17, 1–18.
Laumann, E. O., Paik, A., Glasser, D. B., Kang, J.-H., Wang, T., Levinson, B., et al. (2006). A cross-national study of subjective well-being among older women and men: Findings from the global study of sexual attitudes and behaviors. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35(2), 145–161.
Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. New York: Penguin Press.
Lefkowitz, E. S., Boone, T. L., & Shearer, C. L. (2004). Communication with best friends about sex-related topics during emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 33(4), 339–351.
Luttmer, E. F. P. (2005). Neighbors as negatives: Relative earnings and well-being. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August, 963–1002.
McBride, M. (2001). Relative-income effects on subjective well-being in the cross-section. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 45, 251–278.
McLanahan, S., & Adams, J. (1989). The effects of children on adult’s psychological well being: 1957–1976. Social Forces, 68, 124–146.
Merton, R. K., & Kitt, A. S. (1950). Contributions to the theory of reference group behavior. In R. E. Merton & P. F. Lazarsfeld (Eds.), Continuities in social research: Studies in the scope and methods of “The American Soldier”. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Meston, C. M., & Buss, D. M. (2007). Why humans have sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 477–507.
Myers, D. G. (1993). The pursuit of happiness. London: Aquarian.
Myers, D. (1999). Close relationships and quality of life. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Russell Sage.
Rose, J. D. (1982). Outbreaks: The sociology of collective behavior. New York, NY: New York Free Press.
Sandvik, E., Diener, E., & Seidlitz, L. (1993). Subjective well-being: The convergence and stability of self-report and non self-report measures. Journal of Personality, 61(3), 317–342.
Shedler, J., Mayman, M., & Manis, M. (1993). The illusion of mental health. American Psychologist, 48(11), 1117–1131.
Solnick, S., & Hemenway, D. (1998). Is more always better? A survey on positional concerns. Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, 37, 373–383.
Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2008) Economic growth and subjective well-being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2008.
Stouffer, S. A., Suchman, E. A., DeVinney, L. C., Star, S. A., & Williams, R. M., Jr. (1949). Studies in social psychology in World War II: The American Soldier. Vol. 1, adjustment during army life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Sutton, S. K., & Davidson, R. J. (1997). Prefrontal brain asymmetry: A biological substrate of the behavioral approach and inhibition systems. Psychological Science, 8(3), 204–210.
Uryvaev, Y., & Petrov, G. A. (1996). Extremely low doses of oxytocin reduce pain sensitivity in men. Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine 122(11):487–489.
Veenhoven, R. (1991). Is happiness relative? Social Indicators Research, 24, 1–34.
Veenhoven, R. (1994). World database of happiness: Correlates of happiness. Rotterdam: Erasmus University.
Veenhoven, R., & Hagerty, M. (2006). Rising happiness in nations 1946–2004. A reply to Easterlin. Social Indicators Research, 79, 421–436.
Wallerstein, J. S. (1991). The long-term effects of divorce on children: A review. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 30(3), 349–360.
Williams, R. (2006). Generalized ordered logit/partial proportional odds models for ordinal dependent variables. Stata Journal, 6(1), 58–82.
I thank Jerald Herting, Stefanie Mollborn and Fred Pampel for helpful comments on earlier drafts.
About this article
Cite this article
Wadsworth, T. Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People’s Sex Lives are Related to our Sense of Well-Being. Soc Indic Res 116, 115–135 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-013-0267-1
- Subjective well-being
- Reference groups
- Social comparison