The Good Reasons Why Some People Are Happy Being Single
Happy singles embrace the good life; they don't just avoid conflict
Posted Sep 06, 2015
A journal article with the title "Happily Single" slipped through the academic gates and exploded into the media. Suddenly, all sorts of articles and blog posts had the words "happy" and "single" right next to each other, and my inbox flooded with alerts.
After well over a decade of complaining about singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people), it was heartening to see something different. But something about this latest study also rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed to be damning with faint praise, and more importantly, the authors seemed oblivious to the truly positive reasons that some people are drawn to single life.
Let me explain. In Part I, I'll tell you about the research. Then in Part II, I'll explain what it missed about the real joys and rewards of a meaningful single life. If you don't care about the details of the studies, just skip to Part II at the end.
I. The New Research on Happily Single People
It took me until now to write about this because I like to read the original journal articles I'm discussing and not just the press releases or other people's summaries. The article, "Happily Single," by Yuthika Girme and colleagues at the University of Auckland, reports two studies of people's relationship status, their life satisfaction (happiness), and whether their relationship goals are characterized by "approach" or "avoidance."
First, a summary of the findings of the studies, then I'll describe more of the details.
There are people who care a lot about avoiding conflict and disagreements in their close relationships (avoidance goals) and there are people who are more oriented toward increasing intimacy (approach goals). Two studies showed that among those who care about avoiding conflict and disagreements in their close relationships, single people are just as happy with their lives as coupled people are. Among those who care a lot about increasing intimacy, coupled people were happier than single people, but only in one of the two studies. Coupled people also seemed happier than single people among those who did not care about avoidance goals and among those who did not care about approach goals. (But see below for more about why none of this tells us that getting married or coupled causes people to become happier.)
Looking just at the single people, those who cared about avoiding conflict in relationships were happier than those who did not care much about that. Approach goals didn't matter much for single people. Singles who wanted to increase the intimacy and bonding in their relationships had the same level of happiness as singles who didn't care much about that.
For the coupled people, their concern about avoiding conflict was not related to their happiness. In one of the studies, coupled people who cared about increasing intimacy were happier than the coupled people who did not care so much about that.
Here are some examples of items measuring avoidance (1 to 7 point scale):
- "I try to avoid disagreements and conflicts with people close to me."
- "I try to make sure that nothing bad happens to my close relationships."
Here are some examples of items measuring approach (1 to 7 point scale):
- "I try to enhance bonding and intimacy in my close relationships."
- "I try to move toward growth and development in my close relationships."
Just two items were used to measure life satisfaction (averaged together, 1 to 7 point scale):
- "I am satisfied with my life."
- "In most ways, my life is close to ideal."
In the first study, undergraduates completed the approach and avoidance scales, reported their relationship status (not in a romantic relationship, or in a relationship – casual, steady, serious, living together, or married) and then reported their life satisfaction every day for the next 10 days. Study 2 was based on a representative national sample who again answered the items about approach and avoidance goals, reported their relationship status, and reported their life satisfaction at the beginning of the study and again a year later.
For Study 2, the authors had the data to see how things were different for the exact same people depending on whether they were single or coupled, but they never reported any such analyses. They just compared the people who had the same status at both points in time. Anyone not coupled – for example, people who got married and then got divorced – gets thrown in with the single people.
If you've followed any of my previous work, you know where I'm going with this. The authors are going to imply that it is so great to be one of those awesome couples with their far superior approach goals in their personal relationships, and how they end up more satisfied with their lives. But you know better. Because whenever you take all the people in just one of the groups (for example, the married group) and set aside the ones who were not very happy with their relationship at all (they got divorced), but keep everyone in the other group (the single people), regardless of how they feel about their status – well, that's just cheating. It is giving the coupled group an unfair advantage, which is almost never challenged. And that is absolutely par for the course in academic psychology and in just about every journal article and blog post describing such studies.
My printed copy of their article has big red X's all over the margins next to places where the authors misrepresent the research on marital status and well-being. All throughout the paper, the authors talk about the overall greater life satisfaction of coupled people, but their research is stacked against single people and the methods they used could never demonstrate that getting married (or coupled) makes people happier. Neither their research nor anyone else's definitively shows that getting married makes people happier or healthier. Here's a whole collection of relevant readings and here's just my one most powerful article, plus an introduction.
Here's something else that is clear from the results reported in the tables of the article, but never acknowledged by the authors in the text of their article: Single people do not score higher in avoidance goals than coupled people do. They are no more likely to say they are trying to avoid disagreements and conflicts in their relationships. In fact, in Study 2, it was the coupled people who reported greater avoidance motivation!
So even though single people are generally not any more conflict-avoidant in their personal relationships than couples are (and may even be less so), any conflict avoidance they do have works for them in a way it does not work for couples. Single people who like to avoid conflict in relationships are happier than those who don't care about avoiding conflict. Coupled people are not any happier if they like to avoid conflict than if they don't.
So here's my problem with this research: It is too grudging. It is still stigmatizing single people as conflict-avoidant in their relationships, as opposed to those wonderful approach-oriented coupled people. (Never mind that single people were not more avoidant overall, and in Study 2, less so than coupled people.)
Look at how the authors talk about their results: "…the potential costs of being single are offset for people high in avoidance goals…" These authors seem convinced that coupled people are better people with better lives, and those poor singles are left trying to "offset" all the "costs" of their sad single lives.
All academic journal articles are supposed to end with acknowledgments of what's wrong with the research or what it didn't show. I couldn't wait to get to that section of this article. After all this time, I really did think that the authors would point out that there are also positive reasons for living single. Silly me! Instead, their caveat was that in other, more traditional societies, maybe single people would not even get the grudging advantages of avoidance goals that the authors demonstrated in their research! So not, single life could be much better than we are suggesting here, but hey, it could be even worse!
II. The Positive Reasons Why Some People Are Happy Being Single
I believe that there are people who are not just grudgingly single, or single by circumstances, but who are single at heart. Those are the people for whom living single is the way they live their best, most authentic, most meaningful lives. They are not "offsetting costs." Avoiding bad stuff is not what drives them. They have an approach motivation, not toward romantic relationships in particular, but toward the kind of lives they want to live.
Here are a few of the positive reasons why some people are happy being single.
- Some people are best able to pursue their interests and passions, and make meaningful life choices, when they are single. The research on approach and avoidance goals in personal relationships (described above) focused on attempts "to move toward growth and development in my close relationships" and found couples more likely to endorse such goals. But expand the picture of growth and development to a person's entire life, rather than just their relationships, and the results flip. Now it is single people (and not just the single-at-heart) who are more likely than married people to have "a sense of continued growth and development as a person" (Marks & Lambert, 1998).
- It is a cherished American value to want to feel autonomous and in control of your own life. Single people (and again, not just the single-at-heart) have a greater sense of autonomy and self-determination than married people do (Marks & Lambert, 1998).
- In a study comparing married people to people who had always been single, there were no differences in self-sufficiency – wanting to handle things on your own (Bookwala & Fekete, 2009). However, self-sufficiency seemed to work for single people in a way that it didn't for married people. For the singles, the more self-sufficient they were, the less they experienced negative emotions. But for married people, the more they valued self-sufficiency, the more they experienced negative emotions.
- Single people generally value meaningful work more than married people do (Johnson, 2005). In my preliminary research, I have found that people who identify as single-at-heart are more likely than others to say that they would choose meaningful work that did not pay much over uninspiring work that paid a lot. Single life lets people pursue work they care about that may not pay much, without worrying that they are not pulling their weight within the relationship. (Without the income of another person, there are special challenges, too.)
- People who are single-at-heart have a different attitude about the other people in their lives than people who are not single-at-heart. Those who are most adamant that they are not single-at-heart like the idea of having a romantic partner who is their constant plus-one and they like being their partner's automatic plus-one, too. People who are single-at-heart want to have more options. Sometimes they want to go places with friends or family instead of a romantic partner. Sometimes they want to socialize with more than one person at a time. Sometimes they don't want to socialize at all and prefer to decline a social invitation that doesn't interest them. Single life affords more opportunities to create the style of socializing that works for you.
- The single-at-heart like to be in charge of their life choices, from the small stuff such as whether to exercise more or indulge in a treat, to the really big stuff such as major life-defining decisions. That doesn't mean they are uninterested in feedback – some are and some aren't. But they want the ultimate decision to be their own. Single life allows the single-at-heart to live life on their own terms.
- Many single people love their solitude. In my survey research, I found that people who are single-at-heart are more likely to think fondly about the prospect of spending time alone, whereas people who are not single-at-heart are more likely to worry that they might be lonely. Solitude can be refreshing, relaxing, rejuvenating, and inspirational, for those who value it rather than fear it.
And if you wonder whether the single-at-heart feel that they are missing out on coupled life, most probably do not. Asked how they felt if they were in a romantic relationship and it ended, people who were not single at heart, in overwhelming numbers, described sadness and pain. The single-at-heart more often felt relieved. They got to resume the life that really appeals to them and speaks to them – single life.
[Notes: (1) My new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, tells the stories of people finding or creating their own lifespaces – the places, spaces, and people who are important to them. The people interviewed include singles and couples, parents and people who are not parents, and arrangements ranging from the most traditional to the most contemporary and radical. Stories of the participants are discussed with reference to the relevant research from the social sciences, and placed in historical and cross-cultural context. You can read more about it on my website or on its Facebook page. (2) Thanks to the many people who told me about the "happily single" research.]