There are endless reasons for why we have sex—physical pleasure, comfort, validation, revenge. Another good excuse? The fireworks you experience between the sheets can also light up your brain. Better still, sex can help boost your mental well-being.
There’s a reason humans crave sex. It’s part of our body’s primal drive, and if it feels good, our body becomes hardwired to seek it out again. Sex releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the brain’s pleasure and reward center—the same system that’s activated when you’re addicted to drugs. Plus, sex also releases oxytocin (AKA the cuddle hormone), which researchers believe is important for social bonding and building trust.
But scientists are just beginning to understand the mysterious relationship between sex and the brain. Since sex research treads on traditionally taboo topics like orgasms and pleasure (and some research methods may be considered by some as untoward), it can be difficult for researchers to find funding to support the rigorous scientific study of sex. So, scientists often have to rely on surveys and journals to study sexual behavior.
Previous studies have linked more sex and better quality sex with greater happiness. But can the rush of feel-good hormones improve your overall well-being? According to research from George Mason University, the answer is yes.
“We wanted to know how powerful are really beautiful sexual experiences for raising your well-being and sense of purpose in life,” says Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., lead author of the study, professor of psychology at George Mason University, and author of “The Upside of Your Dark Side”. The study had 152 participants report their sexual activity and well-being for 21 consecutive days.
Here’s what researchers found: participants who had engaged in sexual activity experienced a boost of positive emotions (feeling enthusiastic, happy, satisfied, or excited) and meaning of life as well as a drop in negative emotions (feeling embarrassed, disappointed, anxious, or sad) the following day. Plus, participants who reported a higher quality of sex, in terms of pleasure and intimacy, experienced greater gains in positive moods and lower negative feelings the following day. Researchers also found that the reverse didn’t hold true. For example, being in a good mood or less stressed didn’t predict next day sexual activity or intimacy.
“From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re constantly calibrating where we fit in the social system of people that we care about,” says Kashdan. “[Sex] can be an estimate of social value.” After all, if someone cares about you enough to give access to their body, it’s one way to gauge where you stand and may help to relieve some social anxiety, leading to a boost in feelings of well-being. Plus, Kashdan believes that the effects of oxytocin and dopamine may still linger in the body, enhancing your good mood.
You may interpret the research findings as license to have lots and lots of sex—but not so fast. Scientists say there appears to be tipping point. “We don’t know the exact number but there is certainly a frequency for those in romantic relationships where you don’t get any more benefits,” says Kashdan. In a 2015 study, couples were asked to double the number of times they had sex per week but compared to the control group, more sex resulted in bad moods. In other words, more isn’t always better.
So how much sex should you have per week to experience these psychological benefits? According to Kashdan, there is no magic number: “Don’t stress too much about how often you’re having sex, particularly if you’re in a long-term relationship. There’s nothing magical about having high levels of sex.” Instead, find what works for you, your partner, and your lifestyle, which will be different for every relationship. Assuming you’re in a healthy, consensual relationship, whether your number is once a week or several times a week, you’ll still feel better the next day.
Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND