More sex, please – just don't tell us to do it

Dolls on the link between sex and happiness has been getting lots of media attention – presumably because it’s about sex, and for the staff of traffic-hungry media organisations, the experience of receiving vast numbers of clicks on a story about sex is, ironically and poignantly, better than sex. The headline finding is that more sex doesn’t automatically make you happier; in fact, contrary to the assumptions of most researchers, and for that matter most sex-havers, it makes many feel worse.

Here’s how the experiment worked: half of the 128 couples involved were instructed to have twice as much sex as usual, then all participants filled out a survey, about their sex lives and happiness levels, every day for three months. Perhaps you can spot the problem here? (To be fair, the study’s authors were well aware of it.) A better way of putting the results might be as follows: when four academics from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh tell you to have more sex, and fill out a tedious form every day, it doesn’t make you happier.

Anything, in other words, can be made dispiriting by being turned into an obligation. This is why you should think carefully before following the popular path of turning your “passion” – reupholstering antique chairs, say – into a career. Once you’ve absolutely got to do it, at 9am on a rainy Thursday, you could find yourself worse off than before: stuck with a job you can’t stand, only now without the benefits of an escapist hobby at weekends. One reason is the overwhelming human need, demonstrated over and over again by psychologists, for a sense of autonomy. Any given piece of advice (“Have more sex”, “Do work you love”) might be excellent, yet whether the pressure’s coming from you or someone else, it can curdle the whole thing. Mindfulness is great; being told to be mindful can be enraging. For a more extreme example, take the role of forgiveness in the Charleston church shootings. To offer it, as families of the victims did, can be overwhelmingly powerful. To urge others to show it, as various onlookers did, is about as obnoxiously bullying as it gets.

Unfortunately, it’s also tempting to indulge in self-defeating activities merely to obtain that sense of autonomy. In his recent book The World Beyond Your Head, the philosopher Matthew Crawford argues that the modern curse of distraction works this way. We’ve come to value autonomy so highly that having to read a chapter of a book, or engage in a conversation with a friend, ends up feeling like an imposition; the surreptitious checking of the smartphone is an assertion of independence.

Yet there are things that matter more than the freedom to follow whims; life’s deepest fulfilments may require the capacity to stick with things even when they’re feeling like burdensome duties. (He doesn’t suggest this applies to sex.) I’d end this week’s column by advising you to read his book, except then you might refuse, just for the sake of it.

(First published in Guardian Weekend magazine. Photo by lil'_wiz on Flickr.)

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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