The Rise of Single People: Why Some Find It Scary

Single people have acted just the opposite from what people feared.

Posted Oct 15, 2018

Ruslan Galiullin/Shutterstock
Source: Ruslan Galiullin/Shutterstock

All around the world, more and more people are living single. Even those who do eventually marry are often getting around to it later in life than ever before. That scares some people.

I think what frightens them is all that freedom that single people have. If single people are not tethered to other people by the obligations that come with marriage and family, who knows what they will do? Won’t they just run off and do nothing but play? Won’t they just care about themselves and pay no attention to anyone else?

Pundits like to issue dire warnings like that. For example, an opinion writer for the Washington Post said that we are now engaged in “a headlong . . . pursuit of individual freedom that demands no concern for the wants and needs of others, or of society as a whole.” Because of our ill-fated choices, she thinks that we are less happy and “desperately, desperately lonely.”

I’m tempted to make fun of her for all that, but at some level, I understand her trepidation. Single people — or at least the ones with sufficient resources — have choices about how to live their lives. They could have said to the rest of the world: “Screw you, I’m doing what I want, and I don’t care about you.”

But here’s the thing: They didn’t. On average, single people are the ones tending to their friends and neighbors and siblings and parents. They are the ones showing up when other people need help.

On average, it is the couples who move in together or get married who look at each other and say, “We are the world. Everyone else can just take care of themselves.” Again, these are just averages, and plenty of single people stick to themselves, and plenty of married people take care of people other than each other. But on the whole, it is marriage, not single life, that is a threat to “the wants and needs of others, or of society as a whole.”

Sociologists have a name for this. They call it “greedy marriage.” Marriage sucks up all the caring and the attentiveness and the resources for itself.

So freedom isn’t making single people selfish or uncaring. But is it making them miserable and lonely, as the critics claim?

You might think, intuitively, that the single people who are most likely to feel lonely are the ones who are living alone. But if you compare people who live alone to people who live with others, making sure that the two groups are similar to each other in important ways, such as how much money they have, the results are startling: It is the people who live alone who are less likely to be lonely. Maybe that’s because they make more of an effort to get out of the house and to stay connected to the people who matter to them.

What about the claim that all this freedom-seeking is making people miserable? For that, I can tell you about a study of more than 200,000 people from 31 European nations. They were all asked how much they valued things like being free, being creative, and trying new things. They were also asked about their happiness.

The researcher, Professor Elyakim Kislev, found three things: First, the single people in those 31 nations did value freedom more than married people. Second, the people who valued freedom more were not more miserable than those who did not care as much about it. Just the opposite — they were happier. That was true for both the single people and the married people. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, single people got even more happiness out of their valuing of freedom than married people did. The correlation between valuing freedom and being happy was even stronger for the single people than for the married people. The study did not tell us why that happened, but maybe it is because single people squeeze every last ounce of joy from their freedom. They recognize their freedom as a great opportunity to live their best life, and they are not about to squander it.