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Letís talk about happiness ... and sex

By James McConvill - posted Tuesday, 3 January 2006

A lot has happened since God spouted the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai. Not only has Kate DeAraugo won Australian Idol, but psychologists and economists have gone to great lengths to scientifically determine what makes us happy.

While Aristotle and others wrote that happiness is the main objective in life, the concept has traditionally had little influence over economic and social policy. Happiness has been considered too vague and indeterminate to shape how we are governed. This traditional approach is now on the way out. An abundance of empirical studies now exist to provide guidance as to what does and does not contribute to human happiness. Leading psychologists and “happiness economists” in the US are even now proposing that “Gross Domestic Product” data, measuring national progress by the amount of money flowing through the economy, should be replaced by a “National Index of Well-Being”. There is also a Journal of Happiness Studies devoted to the “science of happiness”.

Happiness data has opened up for re-examination traditional assumptions which have for centuries shaped the way we live as humans, and the way in which we are governed. One traditional assumption that has been blown out of the water is that there is a strong positive correlation between money and happiness. But one issue which continues to raise doubt is the extent to which there is a positive correlation between marriage and happiness. Does settling down with one partner put a smile on our dial, or would we be happier with multiple partners and a lot more sex? The data has not given us a definite answer.


Some studies, including the Australian Unity Well-Being Index, record that married people are more satisfied with life (i.e. happier) than unmarried people. But the problem here is that there may be a so-called “selection effect”. Rather than a simple situation of marriage making people happier, the results may arise because people naturally disposed towards happiness are the ones getting married. Indeed, according to one recent study by leading happiness researcher Ed Diener, people who got married were 0.25 of a per cent (on a scale of 1 to 10) happier even before marriage.

So would everyone be better off if we just forgot about this idea of marriage? Probably not. Family and children are very important sources of happiness. But, when considering the happiness findings to date, a more liberal approach to marriage could be appropriate. Rather than marriage being a “union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others” (emphasis added), as is the present definition under section 5 of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth), perhaps we should be more flexible. While it is not illegal to “hump around”, to borrow a phrase from pop singer Bobby Brown, maybe it is time to consider whether it should remain morally impermissible.

According to a May 2004 report by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald, Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study (pdf file 76KB), increasing a person’s sexual activity from once a month to once a week has roughly the same effect on a person’s happiness as a $US50,000 pay increase. Important also, the authors’ study found that married people are generally happier because they are having 30 per cent more sex than those who are unmarried.

Accordingly, if the most happily married couples are those enjoying more sex than unmarried couples, why deny this bliss to other married couples who do not feel inclined to be intimate with their husband and wife as often? Maybe each partner would be happier if they could have the occasional fling with their team mates at Saturday tennis, or colleague at work? Of course, this should be based on consent. Trust is just as important in happiness terms as a wild night of passion. For a lot of married couples, “humping around” will remain out of the question.

Each partner should consent to the other’s activity, but if they do, is there a problem? If the result is much more sex, including for those who are unmarried benefiting from the married person’s night out, is everyone a winner in happiness terms?

If we were to embrace this emerging science on happiness, sex and marriage, then a possible practical move would be to amend the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act. The happiness literature requires us to at least question whether the present definition should be imposed on every married couple.


The proposal may, however, be premature at this stage. Happiness studies talk about “sex”, and that individuals rate “sex” as one of the main factors generating happiness, and that there is a positive correlation between “sex” and happiness. But what does this mean? You don’t have to be Hugh Hefner to realise that the concept of sex does not come in a neat little package.

Do the happiness studies go deeper than just reporting on “sex”? Looking at some of the leading happiness material, it appears not. This is perhaps because the happiness scholars don’t get out enough, or maybe because they were too shy to proceed beyond the “s” word. The happiness data presents sex as a lone ingredient on the shelf to consume out of necessity, when in actual fact there is a smorgasbord - limited only by one’s imagination and stamina. Will it be the Stand and Carry position? Butterfly? Cowgirl? Leapfrog? How about the Rocking Chair?

Indeed, if we go back to the ancient Kama Sutra, the text refers to 64 different sexual positions. Thus, prior to married couples opening up their love shack to visitors, maybe a renovation is all that is needed. The missionary position may serve its purpose, but if we are serious about the pursuit of happiness, our minds and our bodies need to be flexible.

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About the Author

James McConvill is a Melbourne lawyer. The opinions expressed are his personal views only, and were written in the
spirit of academic freedom when James was employed as a university lecturer.

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