This post is in response to Meet the Least Happy People in America by Sherrie Bourg Carter

Oh, what fun it is to proclaim that successful, 40-something single women are miserable! That gives them their come-uppance, now doesn't it? Because if you are 40-something, single, a woman, and in a prestigious profession such as medicine or law, you are breaking all of the rules. You are threatening those who want to believe that to be happy, you must marry, and that goes double for women. If you are single, you had better not stay that way "too long" - so 40-something year-olds are in for special badgering and scorn. The self-proclaimed arbiters of the good and moral and worthy life would like you to believe that if you stay single too long, you will be a failure. Those who achieve success as doctors and lawyers clearly are not failures. So the trump card? Oh, they must be miserable!

Look how the latest claims about the supposedly unhappy single 42-year old female doctors and lawyers fit all of those singles-bashing criteria perfectly. Think you are successful, you elitist 42-year old professional woman? Ha! Your work won't love you back! Stay in your place. Get married, work part time at most, have kids. Let your hubbie be the breadwinner, while taking breaks at work just to relax - then serve him dinner and a nice stiff drink when he gets home. That's how to get these headlines about miserable single people to stop - get married already!

But what about the results of the survey (conducted by Captivate)? I have so much to say about that. So let me start with a few bottom lines. What is the exact question people were asked? It is nowhere to be found. It supposedly has something to do with happiness, and supposedly single people (especially women) are less happy than married people. Research done right suggests something quite different. But even if this survey did find that the single women were less happy, the results do not show that they are unhappy because they are single. Not even close. And who are the people who participated? Were they representative of any group, or just those who agreed to participate when asked? That matters, too. Suppose singles really are less happy with their work situations - what solutions are proposed? They are mostly about getting your husband to do more of the work. Duh! We're talking about single women - they don't have husbands. To find any mention whatsoever of the actual disadvantages singles might face in the workplace, you are going to have to go to a sassy site such as Jezebel. Because the American Bar Association and sadly, some psychological researchers, are missing those points. I worry about all this singlism, as I always do, but in this particular instance, I'm also concerned with the lessons that employers might read into this bogus report - those possibilities are truly scary.

Although I am responding to another PT blogger, I actually appreciate most of what she said in her post, and I'm not calling her a matrimaniac. She offered a thoughtful, research-based discussion of the challenges facing high-powered married women. My objection is to the title of her post (highlighting single women, not the married ones she actually focuses on) and her uncritical acceptance of the findings of the Captivate survey.

I've been hearing about this survey for a while. (Thanks, Gena, Therese Lee, and Erin Albert!) The first time I was alerted, I took a look at the available information and rolled my eyes. I hoped that findings so poorly documented as these would simply get ignored. But today, when I saw that a post about the findings was trending here at Psych Today, I put everything else aside to write this critique.

I. What's the Question, Exactly?

I followed every link to every website and every document I could find about the survey in question, starting with the press release and the executive summary. Nowhere could I find a report of the exact question participants were asked. Some headlines make it sound like the issue is happiness in the sense of overall life satisfaction. The executive summary implies that people were asked separately about work life and home life. "Balance" comes in somewhere - is it a separate question or just the researchers' guesses based on answers to other questions? This vagueness about the most basic issue in the survey screams "amateur." This is not a scientific survey, with researchers trying to understand what the findings really are and what might account for them. This is a big corporation making big bucks charging Fortune 500 companies to run means and cross-tabs on their datasets. ("Captivate," the company that conducted the survey and reported it, really does work for Fortune 500 companies and brags about that.)

II. Who Are These People?

The executive summary reports that the participants were 673 white-collar professionals from 14 major metropolitan areas in the US and Canada. How were they recruited? Were lots of people asked to participate, then anyone who agreed was in? Or are the 673 people truly representative of all white-collar professionals?

An obvious limitation is that the workers were all white-collar, but that doesn't bother me much because the researchers were clear about that. It does matter, though, whether there were biases (for example) in the kinds of single and married people who agreed to participate. Think about those online polls where anyone can jump in and record their vote. Motivated constituents can urge like-minded people to go and vote. (Evolution loses! More people voted for creationism.) That's not science. I doubt the Captivate survey was that bad, but more information is needed.

III. Causality, Please

If you skimmed some headlines, read some stories, and got the impression that single people were unhappier in this survey because they were single, and that if only they would marry, they would magically become happier, you can be forgiven. I can't find an acknowledgment anywhere in the Captivate materials that this study does not and cannot say anything about causality. To find a reporter or blogger who underscores anything like that, you'd have to look at Jezebel, not the American Bar Association or Market Watch.

A. Happiness as Overall Life Satisfaction

Again, we don't know the question(s) participants were asked, so we have to do some speculating here. Suppose they were asked about happiness in the sense of overall life satisfaction. The best way methodologically to answer the question of whether getting married makes you happier is the ethically impossible one - randomly assign people to stay single or get married or get unmarried, and assess their happiness. The best ethically feasible way is to follow people over the course of their adult lives as they stay single or get married or get unmarried.

Even those longitudinal studies give married people an advantage. They look at changes in happiness among those who get married and stay married. People who get married and later divorce are analyzed separately. That's convenient, because their happiness levels are typically lower than those of people who stay single. Even the married people who are skimmed off the top, though (the ones who get married and stay married) do not fit the myth that says that they will magically be transformed from miserable singles into blissful married people. Single people are solidly on the happy side of the scale. Getting married typically results in a gradual decrease in happiness among those who eventually divorce; the turn toward greater happiness begins to happen about a year before the divorce becomes official. Even among those who stay married, often they get just a brief increase in happiness around the time of their wedding (a honeymoon effect), then go back to being about as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single.

B. Happiness in the Workplace and at Home

I've been a single female professional all of my adult life. When I was 42, I was teaching at my previous university, and I worked very long hours. If you asked me if I wished anything were different about my home or work life, I would have had some answers for you. I might have said, for instance, that I wished had more time to sleep, read for fun, shop the farmers markets and prepare my own meals, and watch TV. I would have liked a person to magically appear to clean my house whenever it needed cleaning, then leave, and not charge for the service.

But would I have been happier in my home life if I simply got married? My best guess is: Not a chance! I think that marriage, even to a wonderful person, would make me miserable. I'm single at heart.

What about work? I would have liked a lighter teaching load and more pay. I would have liked the equivalent in benefits that my married colleagues got. I would have preferred not to be asked to cover the assignments that no one else wanted. I think it should be illegal to ask, as I was my first or second year on the job, to teach at night because "it is harder for the married people to come back after dinner." (I declined.)

Here is where the answer to the causality question may well change. Would I be happier with my work situation if I got married? There are good data on the question of men and pay. Married men generally get paid more than single men, even when they are similar in their achievements. (The results for women are less consistent from study to study.) If I married, I'd have more opportunities to care for others and receive care from others under the Family and Medical Leave Act. I'd be able to add my spouse to my health care plan at a reduced rate, or a spouse in a qualifying workplace could add me. As a single person, I can't add anyone and no one can add me. Think, too, of all of the ways that workplaces often try to accommodate the spouses of their married workers. That doesn't happen when it comes to the most important people in the lives of employees who are single. Even for all that, I wouldn't want to marry, but here's the thing: I should have to marry to get treated fairly! Workplace pay and perks should be based on workplace contributions, not on whether you have a spouse or kids.

IV. What Are We Going to Do About the Unhappy Workers?

Here's my hypothesis. (It is a hypothesis because it still needs testing.) To the extent that singles are unhappy in the workplace (and the Captivate survey does not provide good evidence on that point), it is at least in part because they are treated unfairly. Some of the unfair treatment is easily measured and has already been documented, as in the differences in pay for men and the inequitable distribution of benefits among both men and women. Other workplace biases, and their implications for workers' happiness and health, still need better empirical documentation. For example, do bosses and even coworkers expect single people to cover for their married colleagues, take the least attractive assignments, work longer, get last pick for vacation time, and not dare complain about any of it?

I'd like to see workplaces address those sorts of issues. I'd also like to see all of the people who are writing about the supposedly unhappy single professional women to take on some of these matters. Instead, we get a rehash of how husbands aren't doing enough chores and child care. That's an important issue, but it is not the discussion that should go under a heading about single women in the workplace.

V. What Will Employers See as the Take-Home Message?

If you could crawl inside the heads of all of those Fortune 500 executives (and other employers, too) as they read about this Captivate survey, what would you discover? My fear is that they are thinking to themselves - hmm, I guess I should just hire more married men. That way they will be happier and more compliant. Thanks, Captivate!

You are reading

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16-Year Study: Surprising Findings about Marriage and Health

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Will You Be Less Depressed If You Get Married? Two Studies

Married, cohabiting, dating, not dating: who is least depressed?

The Stories We Tell About Single People Aren't True

A TEDx talk on single life as Plan A