Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

Shocking Discovery?  | e-mail post

Recently, two economists, David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick in England, authored a paper titled "Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study" [PDF link at Blanchflower's site]. In it, they report several observations gained from statistical analysis of the General Social Surveys of the United States (the GSS). The GSS contains a fairly broad set of questions, related to almost every topic of social relevance and is conducted by the University of Chicago's National Research Center (NORC). NORC has been performing these annual or biennial surveys since 1974. You can read about the GSS at their site.

Some things Blanchflower & Oswald observed by analyzing the GSS data include:

Those were some of their detailed findings. Hopefully you are sitting down before reading this main finding, it may shock you: "Sex is strongly and positively associated with happiness." I am assuming that you, fellow readers, are just as shocked by this news as I am. A relationship between sex and happiness is something I had never contemplated; I had naturally assumed that the constant human hunger for sexual congress was strictly driven by our evolutionary need to procreate. OK, I'll stop being sarcastic. So everyone else pretty much would have guessed a relationship between sex and happiness existed at some level.

And, of course, people who have been married or in a long-term monogamous relationship would also know that since it is hard to be happier than being happy in such a relationship, that the ideal number of sexual partners, happiness-wise, is also one.

I did think the percentage of homosexuals was lower than I might have guessed, but not by much; and it doesn't seem like people are having as much sex as they should, especially given that it might relate postively to personal happiness.

Of course, since Blanchflower and Oswald are economists, it is not in their academic nature to speculate deeply about causes behind the data, however, there was one part of the study that caught my attention and made me reflect on some causal factors. Specifically, the finding that: "Sex appears to have disproportionately strong effects on the happiness of highly educated people," struck me as very interesting.

Maybe it struck me particularly given my philosophy education and Plato's claim that the advanced mind (that mind of a good philosopher) appreciates pleasures of a higher order and tends to regard pleasures of the flesh of lesser import. (Plato isn't alone either, the rather more contemporary philsopher J.S. Mill makes a similar claim in his classic tract, Utilitarianism.)

It is likely that if you are reading this, you would fall into the study's "highly educated" category (more than 12 years of education), so this might be news you can use.

Maybe though it does make sense. Sex is one of the few forms of happiness that transcends our ever-thinking minds. That's not to say that there isn't a mental element to sex, and that it certainly can enhance it, but rather, that the sex act can fully absorb one's consciousness and just let it clear out, so to speak. Some religious practices over time have incorporated sexuality into their rituals, for this mind-clearing effect. We can get close to that mind clearing effect in other ways as well, although frequently less conviently. Some people meditate or use self-hypnosis, scuba diving can clear my mind of anything but the present, as can downhill skiing or sometimes even driving, at the right speed and with the right music.

Maybe the more educated among us simply have more difficulty clearing our minds. We may have a predisposition to think about things too much, enhanced by our education and exacerbated by the mass influx of information and media we are constantly assaulted by (or assault ourselves with!). Maybe for those people who can clear their minds just by watching a little bit of television or checking out "the game," have a quicker and more convenient path. Maybe the mind-clearing effect of sex is not all that unique to sex in their worlds. A beer and a baseball game (or soap opera) may work just as well and be a whole lot simpler.

I am reminded of Trent Reznor's lyrics in Nine Inch Nails' none-too-radio-friendly song, "Closer," on The Downward Spiral. In it he describes sex as, "the only thing that works for me, help me get away from myself." As one who typically has a difficult time escaping my own thoughts, quieting my own mind, I always had a certain affinty for this lyric.1 Of course, Reznor is not alone, and Quentin Crisp puts an even darker spin on the escapist property of sex by referring to sex as "the last refuge of the miserable." I find Mae West's observation that an "orgasm a day keeps the doctor away," a much more positive spin on things.

Of course, the other side of the coin here is that sexual activity could be the effect of happiness, not the cause, or more likely that they are linked and comingled in ways too complex to easily discuss. I think we are certainly all aware of the negative impact on a person's (or a couple's) sexual desire that some types of unhappiness can cause.

In any event, maybe this study will give all of us, especially the highly educated, pause to contemplate the value of being an intellectual, if Aldous Huxley's definition of an intellectual as "a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex" has any truth to it. More interesting, maybe, more essential to happiness? I guess we'll have to wait for the next study on correlations between happiness and higher-level thinking and contemplation. Given that I have always considered depression a disease of affluence that is well-correlated with intelligence, I doubt it will be as clearly positive a relationship as between sex and happiness.

1 For an extremely in-depth analysis of The Downward Spiral, you might want to read this dissertation by James Salvatore and Brian Cancellieri. While it has a different spin on Reznor's thoughts in Closer, I can honestly say the authors have given the album's lyrics far more contemplation than I, and would thus defer to their analysis of Reznor's thoughts as expressed through the album.

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