By Justin Lehmiller
Research suggests that sex could potentially be good for us in a lot of ways. For example, studies have found that, among men, frequent orgasms are linked to enhanced immune system functioning , a lower risk of prostate cancer , as well as a lower risk of premature death . In addition, research has found that frequent sexual activity is associated with enhanced memory among older adults, both male and female . Beyond these potential physical and cognitive benefits, a new study in the journal Emotion suggests that sex might be good for our mental health and well-being, too.
In this three-week diary study, 152 college students (average age of 24) provided daily reports on their sexual activities and answered questions about their mental well-being. Specifically, students reported on how much meaning they felt in life, as well as their current levels of both positive (e.g., happy and excited) and negative mood states (e.g., anxious and sad). What the researchers wanted to look at was how sexual activity on one day predicted mental well-being on subsequent days.
When participants had sex, they reported gains in mental well-being the next day. In particular, they felt more meaning in life and experienced more positive and fewer negative moods.
However, it wasn’t just having sex that mattered—the quality of sex seemed to count for something, too. Specifically, when people rated sex as being highly pleasurable, they reported even better moods the next day. Quality of sex wasn’t related to meaning in life, though.
A logical question some folks might have about these results is whether sex predicts better mental well-being, or whether positive well-being predicts more sex. In other words, could it be that the direction of effects goes the opposite way? The researchers tested this possibility and, interestingly, they found that well-being did not predict sexual activity on later days. This suggests that the flow goes primarily from sex to well-being, as opposed to the other way around.
These results held for both men and women. However, it is important to note that the observed increase in well-being was temporary. Specifically, it lasted just one day, meaning there was no lingering benefit on day two or beyond. However, greater sexual intimacy was linked to enhanced positive mood two days later, which tells us that some types of sexual activity might lead to longer-lasting effects than others.
Because this study focused on college students who were predominately heterosexual, it is important for researchers to replicate these findings with an older and more diverse sample. Replicating these findings would also be useful in light of the fact that well-being did not predict future sex. Intuitively, most people probably would have expected that people in good moods would have been more likely to have sex. As such, I’d be cautious about concluding that well-being doesn’t predict sex until we have a bit more data.
Limitations aside, though, this study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that sex just might be good for us in several ways, including our physical and mental health.
 Haake, P., Krueger, T. H., Goebel, M. U., Heberling, K. M., Hartmann, U., & Schedlowski, M. (2004). Effects of sexual arousal on lymphocyte subset circulation and cytokine production in man. Neuroimmunomodulation, 11, 293-298.
 Rider, J. R., Wilson, K. M., Sinnott, J. A., Kelly, R. S., Mucci, L. A., & Giovannucci, E. L. (2016). Ejaculation frequency and risk of prostate cancer: updated results with an additional decade of follow-up. European Urology, 70(6), 974-982.
 Davey Smith, G., Frankel, S., & Yarnell, J. (1997). Sex and death: Are they related? Findings from the Caerphilly Cohort Study. British Medical Journal, 315, 1641-1644.
 Wright, H., & Jenks, R.A. (2016). Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age. Age and Ageing.
 Kashdan, T. B., Goodman, F. R., Stiksma, M., Milius, C. R., & McKnight, P. E. (2017). Sexuality leads to boosts in mood and meaning in life with no evidence for the reverse direction: A daily diary investigation. Emotion.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.