3 Kinds of Happy People
Of the three kinds of happy people, one is single, and another could be.
Posted Aug 04, 2018
Happiness is about living the life that best suits who you really are, even if that means going against the prevailing norms and expectations.
For some people, the kind of life they most want to live, the life that is most deeply fulfilling, is exactly the kind of life that is respected and rewarded and celebrated at the time and place that they are living. In many contemporary societies, it is married life that is considered good and worthy. People who live their best lives by being married are in luck. They can live the lives they find most intrinsically rewarding, and all sorts of external rewards will follow.
They comprise the first category of people, who have a head start on happiness. They are the people who find married life most fulfilling, and they are living the married life at a time and place that values that life above all others.
For many years, I have been trying to make the case that some people live their best lives by living single. I don’t mean this in that grudging sense you often hear, that being single is better than being in a bad romantic relationship. No, I mean that for these people, whom I call “single at heart,” living single is their Plan A. It is the way they live their most meaningful and fulfilling life.
The challenge for people who would do best to live single is that it could take them a long time to realize that single life can be a good life — and for them, the best possible life. That’s not what they learn from fairy tales or movies or TV shows or novels or the lyrics of songs. Their friends and family will not gather from far and wide to celebrate their commitment to single life. Laws won’t carve out protections or tax breaks for them. The prevailing customs and the practices of everyday life will not be organized around their lives.
In her new memoir, No One Tells You This, Glynnis MacNicol describes a conversation she had with a friend when she was 40 and single. The friend asked her what she wanted. She answered, “Maybe I just like being alone.” To the reader, she admits, “For the first time it crossed my mind that being alone could be a good thing, and not evidence that I was defective.”
Then she posed this question: “Had I always actually just preferred to be on my own and not known that was something I could be without it being something I should feel ashamed about?” Looking back at two of her most significant romantic relationships — one with a married man, and another with an actor who lived far away and was involved with other women — she wondered whether she had purposefully sought out men like that. She could be with them without having to “give up what I so cherished about my life. They were there, but not there at the same time."
In my TEDx talk, I told several other stories of people who came to realize, only in roundabout ways, that single life was the life for them. It is still a hard sell for many people, who resist the notion that anyone could be truly happy if they are single. Even people who have embraced single life sometimes talk about it in ways that mischaracterize and unwittingly devalue that life — as, for example, when they refer to single people as “alone” or “unattached.” In important ways, single people are more connected to other people than married people are, and they have relationships with other people that meet all the formal requirements for genuine attachments.
People who are “single at heart” and who are living single comprise the second category of people who are setting themselves up for happiness. It may have taken them a while to get where they are, and there will always be challenges as long as so many other people consider their life to be second-rate, but they are living the life that is best for them. I don’t know if you can be truly, deeply happy if you are single at heart, but trying to make it as a married person (or if married life is the best life for you, but you are single).
A friend of mine who is happily married once said that yes, she was happily married, but if she were single, she would be happy that way, too. She’s an example of the third category of happy people — people for whom marital status (or romantic relationship status) just isn’t all that important. They can be deeply fulfilled either way.
There are lots of paths to happiness, and plenty of impediments. People who are living the life that suits them best (for example, people who are single at heart and are living single) are on the happiness fast track. That’s no guarantee of happiness, though. All sorts of things can be happening in their lives to make them miserable. Still, I think they would be even more miserable if they were living a life that did not fit who they really are.