Post-sex happiness is typically associated with achieving the elusive orgasm, but new research hints that bedroom joy may have a much cuter origin: cuddles. While we know sex brings pleasure, scientists have found that it is, more importantly, the vehicle toward what people want even more, which is affection. New research takes a novel look at the connection between sex and happiness — and may finally explain why one-night stands feel less satisfying than in-relationship hookups.
In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers report that sex doesn’t induce nearly as much happiness as post-coital cuddling. They drew this conclusion after conducting a series of experiments based on the experiences of 409 predominantly heterosexual couples, who were recruited either online or in person. An analysis of these surveys revealed that couples who frequently had sex and frequent displays of emotion also were the ones who most often felt emotions like joy and contentment.
But it was unclear from these surveys whether these warm feelings of life satisfaction stemmed from sex or cuddling after sex. So, the researchers followed up with two “experience-sampling” studies in which 106 predominantly married couples were asked to keep a diary for ten days. In these diaries, they kept a record throughout the day of their sexual activity, affectionate experiences, and their overall emotions. As the researchers read through the journals, a consistent pattern emerged: Sex resulted in positive emotions because sex also spiraled into moments of affectionate love.
“When engaging in sex, people not only seek an intimate connection, but indeed experience more affection, both when having sex and in the next several hours,” the researchers write. “Hence sex seems not only beneficial because of its physiological or hedonic effects, but because it promotes a stronger and more positive connection with the partner.”
An important caveat to the study is that is that all of the information is self-reported. Further studies, likely involving brain imagining, will be necessary to know whether the brain’s pleasure center is indeed more active when individuals feel affection. But the connection between sex and subsequent affection has been examined and found before: A 2015 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people who want to engage in post-sex chat and cuddle with their partner are the people who achieved orgasm. People who didn’t orgasm had more negative feelings about pillow talk. And the discovery the hormone kisspeptin’s purpose solidified the relationship between emotion and sex: The hormone links sexual and emotional brain processing, which instigates post-coital relationships.
This new study doesn’t just suggest that sex triggers strong emotions; it points out that the emotions of affection that follow sex may make us happier in the long run. Keep that in mind the next time you get lucky: While there’s nothing wrong with a little bump and grind, a bit of spooning afterward could be the key to getting it right.