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New data from the General Social Survey suggests that, like money, sex is more satisfying if we believe we get as much as other people.

For over 40 years, social scientists have been taking the "pulse of America" with the General Social Survey. Every other year, the survey asks thousands of Americans whether they are "very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy," and then correlates those answers to dozens of answers to questions. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, the General Social Survey (as of 2010) has sent interviewers to over 55,000 randomly selected participants and asked them questions about 5,417 different aspects of daily living. 

The questions asked by the General Social Survey cover every conceivable aspect of daily living. When I was assigned the task of analyzing the data set from the survey's 1985 data, the single most predictive factor in the millions of responses in the survey turned out to be, to my considerable chagrin, since I was employed by a prestigious university at the time, astrological sign. (I don't know whether General Social Survey interviewers still ask about astrological sign, but I do know most analysts would prefer not to deal with it, especially when it turns out to have more statistical predictive power than another variable in the set.) And since 1989, the General Social Survey has asked randomly selected respondents about dozens of indicators of quality of life including frequency of sexual intercourse.

Dr. Tim Wadsworth, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, recently published a paper entitled Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People’s Sex Lives are Related to Our Sense of Well-Being" in the academic journal Social Indicators Research. Dr. Wadsworth's novel analysis of the survey data has found that not only does frequency of sex make a difference in reported happiness, perceived frequency of neighbors having sex makes a difference, too.

Professor Wadsworth found that:

  • People who had not had sex in the previous year were 33% less happy than those who reported having sex a minimum of two or three times a month.
  • The more sex people had, they happier they were. People who said they had sex at least once a week were 44% more happy and people who had sex two or three times a week were 55% more happy. No big surprises there, but
  • People who had sex two or three times a month, but who believed their peers were having more, were less happy than those who did not believe their neighbors had sex more often, happiness levels 14% lower.

"There's an overall increase in sense of well-being that comes with engaging in sex more frequently, but there's also this relative aspect to it," Wadsworth said in a press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. "Having more sex makes us happy, but thinking that we are having more sex than other people makes us even happier."

But exactly how do Americans know how much sex their neighbors are having?

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