Adrienne Jackson, PhD, assistant professor in the division of physical therapy, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Tallahassee.
It’s an age-old question—does sex make couples happier, or do happy couples simply have more sex? Research has repeatedly confirmed that there is an association between overall well-being and frequent sex among people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Far less research has explored the same question among people older than that. But now, a new study has tackled that issue directly by looking at married couples age 65 or older. So what do you think—would you guess that sex and happiness are still so closely related when people become senior citizens?
For insight into the findings, which were presented at The Gerontological Society of America meeting in November 2011 in Boston, we spoke to Adrienne Jackson, PhD, assistant professor in the division of physical therapy at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee and the study’s author.
For this study, Dr. Jackson used data from the 2004 to 2008 national General Social Surveys, which had been conducted by the University of Chicago to monitor societal trends. Dr. Jackson analyzed answers from 240 male and female married responders who were age 65 or older (in fact, many of them were over 75) and had answered questions on marital happiness, overall happiness and frequency of sexual activity, which was defined as oral, vaginal or anal penetration… so this was not “sex lite,” folks! For the questions on overall happiness and marital happiness, respondents indicated whether they were “very happy,” “pretty happy” or “not too happy.” And for the sex questions, Dr. Jackson divided the responders into three groups—those who had sex more than once a month, those who had it a few times a year and those who hadn’t had any sex in the past year.
Dr. Jackson found that the frequency of sex was strongly associated with both marital happiness and overall happiness. In fact, almost 60% of respondents who had sex more than once a month were “very happy” overall, while just 40% of those who had sex once or twice a year or not at all felt “very happy” overall. Marital happiness, specifically, was found in 80% of those who had sex more than once a month, compared with only about 60% of those having less or no sex.
As we mentioned earlier, there’s a big chicken-and-egg question here—it’s still unclear whether sex causes happiness or vice versa. Maybe research will find that out one day. But this study does confirm that there is a link between sex and happiness—even as we get older.
If you don’t have a partner—at any age—it isn’t always easy to kick your sex life into high gear again (especially if you want to be safe about it!). But if you are in a relationship in which emotional or physical issues are keeping you from an active sex life, you may want to try working on those issues—for example, by going to marriage counseling or talking with your doctor about your physical limitations—specifically with sex as a goal. Based on these findings, it may be worth the effort since happiness and a satisfying sex life are both things to want.