Money, Sex, and Happiness: What is Worth $50,000 of Happiness Per Year?

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rothheartMid-Feburary is the time of year when writers everywhere tie their subject matter to Valentine’s Day. Here’s how mine came about. I was reading 23 Science-Backed Ways to Feel Happier at Mental Floss. #8 was “Twist the Sheets” which included the claim:

One study even suggests that having sex once a week may make you feel as stoked as scoring an additional $50,000 in income.

Really? The link provided was rather vague, but the study referenced is Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study by Blanchflower and Oswald (and hosted at the National Bureau of Economic Research, thank you very much).

Working from there, I found this NY Times article that covered the study in more depth (emphasis mine):

In their study, Mr. Oswald and Mr. Blanchflower analyzed the self-reported sexual activity and levels of happiness of more than 16,000 American adults who participated in a number of social surveys since the early 1990’s. (Happiness is notoriously difficult to define, and the surveys make no attempt to do so; the respondents simply record how happy they believe themselves to be on a sliding scale.) By factoring out the measurable effects of other life events, the study revealed, to no one’s surprise, that, ”The more sex, the happier the person.”

Furthermore, the economists compared the levels of happiness produced by a vigorous sex life with other activities whose economic values had been calculated in prior research, allowing them to impute, in dollars, how much happiness sex was worth. They also estimated that increasing the frequency of sexual intercourse from once a month to at least once a week provided as much happiness as putting $50,000 in the bank.

A lasting marriage, by comparison, offers about $100,000 worth of happiness a year — that is, on average, a single person would need to receive $100,000 annually to be as happy as a married person with the same education, job status and other characteristics. Divorce, on the other hand, imposes an emotional toll of about $66,000 a year, though there may be a short-term economic gain from the immediate relief provided by leaving your spouse.

As they say, correlation is not causation. The study doesn’t suggest whether more sex leads to more happiness, or happiness leads to more sex. Same with marriage.

In addition, a different set of studies analyzed in the academic journal Social Psychological and Personality Science supports the idea that once-a-week sex is the optimal frequency for maximizing feelings of “well-being” (i.e. happiness?). Taken from the abstract (emphasis mine):

In Study 1, the association between sexual frequency and well-being is only significant for people in relationships. In Studies 2 and 3, which included only people in relationships, sexual frequency had a curvilinear association with relationship satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction mediated the association between sexual frequency and well-being. For people in relationships, sexual frequency is no longer significantly associated with well-being at a frequency greater than once a week.

Or, as Men’s Health magazine puts it: The Happiest Couples Have Sex Once a Week (And No More). Via NPR:

The take-home message, Muise says, is that it’s “important to maintain a sexual connection with a romantic partner, but it is also important to have realistic expectations for one’s sex life (given that many couples are busy with work and family responsibilities.)”

The first study also found that making more money does not mean more sex. Others have found that making more money (past a certain point) does not mean more happiness. Tricky stuff, this happiness thing. In any case, I wish you all a happy long weekend!

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  1. So, the bottom line is: have sex once a week and get money and you’re a happy camper? (without worrying about causation)

    Of course having kids is usually a drain on your sex life and your money, but they also bring happiness to the mix. So then are the happiest people those with kids who are getting it on about once a week and making money? That makes sense to me… i guess i need to work on the once a week thing!

  2. These studies would seem to have massive standard deviation issues, making them almost useless. “on average, a single person would need to receive $100,000 annually to be as happy as a married person with the same education, job status and other characteristics. “–well below half of the workforce makes 100k to begin with. That said, I find the stat very believable based on outliers. Take a couple Bill Gates and Warren Buffets who likely value their marriage to the tune of billions and that easily averages out to an average 100k benefit.

    Ditto on the sex, extremely wealthy individuals literally pay that much per week on high end call girls, so it doesn’t seem much of a jump to say that some people “receive as much happiness as putting $50,000 in the bank.”

  3. I’m sorry, Jonathan, but this is pseudo-science at best, and full of flaws.
    Normally, I agree with and really like the stuff you post, but not this time.

    Setting aside the obvious problems in evaluating happiness through self-reported surveys, let’s just look at the statement from the study:
    “For people in relationships, sexual frequency is no longer significantly associated with well-being at a frequency greater than once a week.”

    Now, the Men’s Health statement:
    “The Happiest Couples Have Sex Once a Week (And No More)”

    Those two statements are simply not the same! Not even close. The study simply suggests that sex more frequently than once a week doesn’t appear to be a sign of additional happiness, as best they have been able to measure it here.

    Then, there’s this idea that money brings happiness. As you yourself point out in the blog article you reference, there are studies refuting the idea that you can use money to replace the happiness that would otherwise come from other sources. To even suggest that you can buy happiness, much less quantify it as they have here, involves such a stretch beyond anything reasonably resembling science as to be useless.

    I really don’t see why you bothered to post this one.

    • I agree, it’s quite fuzzy, but I still think it is amusing to read about. For example, take someone who is (1) married, (2) makes at least $75k, and (3) has sex once a week. Now consider another person accumulating a million dollar net worth. Which person is happier? Which path is easier to achieve? What if the answer to both questions is the first person?

      I should add that the studies found that happiness DOES increase with income until you reach about $60k to $75k in annual income. After reaching $60 to $75k income, subsequent income increases don’t affect happiness much. Thus when comparing the amount of happiness from $50k of more income, the reported happiness increase was measured from $25k income to $75k income (from what I understand). So it’s not in direct conflict, but it is relative to starting income level.

  4. Another interesting conclusion from that study:
    “Income has no effect. Money buys neither more sexual partners nor more sex. “

  5. I would be interested in seeing if this correlation shows up in the suicide rates of people at different income levels, as the ultimate indicator of happiness.

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