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Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People’s Sex Lives are Related to our Sense of Well-Being

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. “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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Jerald Herting, Stefanie Mollborn and Fred Pampel for helpful comments on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Tim Wadsworth.

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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

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Keywords

  • Happiness
  • Subjective well-being
  • Sex
  • Reference groups
  • Social comparison