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What Makes Your Life Meaningful and Fulfilling?

What I used to get wrong when I discussed single life, including my own.

Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock
Source: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

If you are young, single, and happy, and own your happiness, you are probably used to people doubting you. “You aren’t really happy,” they will insist. “You just haven’t met the right person yet.” Or they will tell you it is just a phase.

I was that young, happy single person once. Now I’m 65. I’ve been single all my life. I’m still happy. I don’t think it was a phase.

I never wanted to marry. I had no interest in it whatsoever. But for a long time, I wondered whether I might change my mind. I didn’t know anyone who loved living single as much as I did. There was no internet then, so I had no easy way to search far and wide for people like me. I didn’t see lives like mine in movies, on television, in novels, or even children’s books. Their characters fell in love and got married. Scholars, too, seemed to assume that just about everyone would marry and have kids. That was the blueprint for adult life.

While waiting for the change of heart that would never arrive, I threw away the blueprint for how I was supposed to live and created a life that suited me. When I was 26, I finished my doctoral studies in social psychology and started my first academic job at the University of Virginia. The conventional wisdom insists that settling down means getting married, but in the ensuing two decades, my single life could hardly have been more settled. I kept the same job at the same university and did research on the same topic, the psychology of lying and detecting lies. I would have kept the same car the whole time, if it did not refuse to keep running. I moved just once, from a townhouse that I rented to a bright, open, airy home that I owned and loved and had all to myself.

At the university during the day and at home at night, I contentedly immersed myself in the life of the mind. In between, I traversed Charlottesville’s leafy green nature trails. Several times a week, I met friends for dinner on the downtown mall. I hosted get-togethers for watching bad TV on many a Sunday evening. I joined a cooking club, too; for years, I was often the sole single person around a table of couples.

Some people seemed skeptical of my life, hinting around with indirect queries, when what they really wanted to ask was this: “But Bella, you’re not married. You don’t have kids. How does this even count as an adult life?” If they had dared to ask, I probably would have said, “I don’t have a spouse, but I have friends and family. I don’t have kids, but I am a teacher, a mentor, an aunt, and a presence in the lives of the children of my friends.” Maybe I would have mentioned my work as well.

In 2000, I headed to the University of California at Santa Barbara for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical. I basked in the sunshine, the spectacular beauty, the progressive politics, the brilliant intellectuals, my newfound friends, and the opportunity to launch a whole new area of study, which I had just begun to contemplate in the years before, on the psychology of living single. When it came time to return to Virginia, I instead invented a new stage of life that I had not found in any academic model of adult development: I blew up my life — my good, solid, satisfying life — and started over.

I stayed in Santa Barbara, even though there was no professorship available for me. I gave up my tenured job and the salary that came with it, the home that I owned, and the life I had spent decades building. I also (mostly) left behind my study of deception and pursued with a passion my new interest in people who are single. That I could make such a big and financially risky series of life changes, without consulting a soul, was thrilling.

I cherished my new single life even more than my previous one. I had put together a life that was profoundly meaningful and fulfilling. And yet, the sentiment reflected back to me was that I was not fully adult and could not possibly want the life I had chosen. When my coupled friends went to dinner and movies on the weekends, they went with other couples. I was mostly relegated to weekday lunches and children’s birthday parties. When, in response to their opening gambits, I told new acquaintances who were married with children that I was single and had no kids, they’d respond with that pity face, as if I had just said that I was sad and lonely and envious of them. Or they would assume that I had announced a hole in my life that needed to be filled, as when a married mother replied with, “Oh, I have the perfect thing for you! My daughter’s Girl Scout troop needs a new leader.”

Was it just me, or were other single people viewed the same way, too? In a series of studies, my colleagues and I used different approaches to try to find out. We asked people what characteristics came to mind when they thought about single people or married people. We also created pairs of biographical sketches that were identical, except that in one of the sketches, the person profiled was said to be single, and in the other, married. No matter how we asked our questions, single people were judged more harshly than married ones. They were derided as less mature, less happy, lonelier, less secure, more self-centered, and more envious — though they were also seen as more independent.

I wanted to say that single people were being unfairly stereotyped. The alternative, though, was that single people really are miserable, and if only they would marry, they would become happier and healthier. That’s been the prevailing narrative for quite some time. Back when I was just practicing single life and not yet studying it, I had no reason to disbelieve it. Sure, I didn’t think I would be better off if I married, but I figured I was the exception.

Once I read the original research reports, I was stunned by what I found. The very best studies that followed the same people over the course of their adult lives found that single people, on the average, were happy and healthy. If they got married, they typically became no happier and no healthier than they were when they were single.

Scholars had spent decades trying to explain what was so great about marriage. Now it was time to flip the script and try to understand how single people are doing so well, even as they are up against the stereotyping and discrimination I call “singlism,” as well as the over-the-top celebration of marriage and coupling that I call “matrimania.”

The answers that have been emerging defy stereotypes. For example, contrary to the characterizations of single people as isolated and lonely, research shows that single people typically have more friends than married people do. They also do more to help, support, and stay in touch with their siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors.

Professionally, I was feeling good about the myth-busting research I was doing. And personally, I prided myself on having lived my life in cheerful, unapologetic defiance of the “get married, have kids” blueprint that was supposed to define it.

These days, though, I’m feeling a little less smug. I’m starting to recognize the ways in which the marital imperative has long been infiltrating my thoughts about my own life and my writing about other single people’s lives.

Someone like me should never have spent my 20s and 30s wondering whether I might change my mind about not wanting to marry. I had seen the best that marriage and coupling could offer, and it did not tempt me. My parents raised four kids and stayed together for 42 years, until the day my dad died. I’ve socialized with many loving couples, but that did not leave me yearning to be coupled; afterwards, I was always happy to go home and be alone. I’ve attended my fair share of weddings, but I’ve never wished that my turn was next. I tried dating in high school and college and have fond memories of all of those partners. But when each relationship ended, I was delighted to return to the life that I loved, my single life.

The way I used to think about my life — I’m not married, but I have friends and relatives; I’m not a parent, but I have ties to the next generation — showed the opposite of what I had hoped. I was not free of the blueprint at all. I had unwittingly accepted the premise that a spouse and children should be at the center of adult life and tried to cast my own life as a reasonable approximation to that ideal.

The studies showing that people who marry typically do not become happier than they were when they were single, and that single people do more to maintain their ties with other people, are important. I will continue to write about them. But again, it is a way of accepting married life as the standard to use to evaluate single people.

Now I think that what’s most important about the research on single people’s social ties is not the average results — even though they reflect positively on single people — but the variability from one single person to another. Single people get to choose whether one person, no one person, or many people are going to be at the center of their lives.

Really throwing away the blueprint, freeing yourself from its tentacles, means thinking about your life in a more open-minded way. To answer the question of what your life is about if you don’t marry or have kids, the first and most important step is to dispense with the marriage and children part of the question. Ask instead what makes your life meaningful and fulfilling. When you think about it that way, there are no limits to how you might answer.

For me, my research and writing and speaking on single people and single life has been more meaningful than I could ever have imagined. It’s not just work, and it is not just an interest. It is a passion.

Fulfillment for me comes from the people in my life and the place where I live — so reliably sunny, I can walk along the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean all year round.

I am also deeply fulfilled by an aspect of my life that is supposed to scare me out of being single. I am alone. I don’t mean that I don’t have friends or relatives who matter to me — I do. I mean that I live alone. In a place all my own, I can think with my whole mind and feel with all my heart. Home, to me, is a place of peace and contemplation. With “alone” defined as living in a place that is mine alone, I hope that I will continue to grow old alone and even die alone.

At 65, I’m still figuring out how to break completely free of the marriage-plus-children blueprint for how to live, and how to evaluate a life. It will be easier for the coming generations. People stay single longer than they did when I was young. According to a Pew research report, when today’s young adults reach the age of 50, about one in four of them will have been single all their lives. Just having so many other people along for the single ride is itself validating. As for single people with few single friends or relatives nearby, all they need to do is search online. There, they will find blogs about living single and even an online community for people who want to live their single lives fully, joyfully, and free of stereotyping and stigma. The selection of books is more affirming, too. There are myth-busting books, writings that reclaim the term spinster, and accounts of the lives of lifelong single people, among many others. Also available are empowering TED talks about single life. Today’s young single people may also discover that there is a name for people who live their best lives by living single — they are “single at heart.” I can’t wait to see how their lives unfold.

[An edited version of this article was first published as a Thanksgiving essay at Slate Magazine. This revised version is published here with permission.]

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