In my last post, I discussed the story on the homepage of Yahoo a few days ago, 8 myths about being single, and the emails I had gotten in response to it. One theme showed up only in a small number of those emails, yet it seems to have set up shop in the back of my mind. That's usually a clue to write about it.
The theme is this: "My life is not like that," where "that" refers to the actual lives of single people, as I described them in beating back the myths. The people who wrote to me (mostly people I had never heard from before) said things like (and I'm paraphrasing because I did not ask their permission to use their exact words), "I'm single and I'm not happy" or "I'm single and I'm lonely" or "I'm single and I don't have lots of friends, but I like it that way."
My first thought in response to such comments is that I am describing the overall trends that I have found in published studies and not individual variation - and there always is variation from person to person. The overall trends are important, and especially so if they counter ingrained stereotypes about singles - for example, that they are miserable and lonely and isolated from the rest of society. When I think about that myth that single people are unhappy, and how robust it is, I just have to shake my head in bewilderment - especially when I contrast that misperception with what the data actually show. In more than a decade of looking closely at every relevant research paper I can find, I still haven't found one in which the average happiness of single people was not on the happy end of the scale.
It is also important, though, to acknowledge the variability. Some single people really are unhappy or lonely or isolated. There are several points I want to make about that.
When people say, "I'm single and I'm unhappy," sometimes what they are implying is, "I'm unhappy (or lonely or isolated), and if only I got married, that would change." From long-term longitudinal studies of happiness, we know that any potential increase in happiness may not happen at all (often the case among people who marry and then divorce), may be fairly small, or may be fleeting. Yet there are people who do become lastingly happier after marrying. Statistically, they are countered by people who marry and become less happy, but that doesn't mean we should deny or diminish the experiences of the former group.
I worry about descriptive claims morphing into normative ones. To translate the academic jargon in that last statement, my concern is that some people will think that the way most singles experience their lives is the way all singles should experience their lives. Take friendship, for example. I like to talk about the studies showing that singles often have whole networks of friends who are important to them because those findings are such important counterpoints to the stereotypes of singles as people who are "alone" and "don't have anyone."
But just because having a network of friends is important to some singles does not mean that it has to be important to you. I think we all have some ratio of solitude to sociability that is right for us. You can't know what the right balance is for you personally by reading about studies, no matter how large or how great those studies might be. It is something you need to figure out for yourself. It may even be something that changes over time, as it has for me. For my first decade or so of life as a university professor, I loved the intense sociability that came with my job. I had lunch with different colleagues every weekday. I had dinner with friends at least twice a week. There was probably only one day a week, on average, when I did not have any plans on my social calendar. I did cherish that day of solitude, but at the time, I would not have wanted more than one. Now my ratio of solitude to sociability tips more towards solitude, and at this point in my life, that's what feels comfortable and right.
As I explained at greater length in an earlier post, what I care about even more than single life is authenticity and choice. We should all feel free to live the life that is most meaningful to us, without risk of stigma or dismissiveness. There is no one way of life that is completely free of problems and challenges. We're not choosing the perfect life, since there isn't one. We're pursuing the path that works best for us at whatever place we are at in the adventure that is our life.