Depression

Why Are You Sad? The Obvious Answer Isn’t Always Right

If you are both alone and sad, one may have little to do with the other.

Posted Oct 16, 2020

If you are single, living alone, and feeling down, do you think you are sad because you are single and living alone? Do you think that if you would just find a romantic partner and get married, or at least move in with a romantic partner—or any other human, for that matter—then your sadness and your loneliness would dissipate?

There are many reasons why you may be inclined to think that way. In fact, that sort of reasoning is so pervasive, it takes a special effort to challenge it. But we should challenge it. Partnering and changing your living arrangements are major life decisions. For some, they really will result in a happier life. Expecting that to be the general rule, though, is likely to be a mistake. There are just too many ways to be misled about why we feel the way we do.

Social Media Is Messing with Your Mind

If you are living alone and feeling cut off from friends and family during the pandemic, especially as couples and families appear to be feeling freer to go out and about, social media is messing with your mind. All those pictures of happy couples, festive families, and their awesome outings and vacations can make you feel worse than you already do. But research suggests something you probably already know: Facebook doesn’t tell the whole story. And sometimes the story it does tell is untrue.

In America the Anxious, Ruth Whippman recounts running into a friend who was just back from what was supposed to be a romantic weekend with her husband. The friend ranted about what a horrible time she and her husband had, how rude her husband was, how they barely spoke the whole time, and how the entire experience was a complete disaster. Then, Whippman went home and checked her Facebook feed, only to find that her friend had posted something entirely different: “Without the remotest hint of strife are ten or so whimsically captioned pictures of an adorable couple in complementary sun hats, frolicking.”

The Pandemic Is Screwing with Your Emotions

Some people who are single and living alone are doing fine, even thriving, despite the pandemic, but others are not. If you are someone who is struggling, you may think that’s because you are single and living alone. And for some, it may well be.

But the pandemic has let loose a cascade of complications to our lives. Many people have suffered devastating losses of jobs, health, and people they loved. Others are scared that those things could happen. Just about everyone has had routines disrupted, plans delayed or forsaken, and in-person gatherings transformed into masked, socially-distanced events, if they are taking place at all. Any of those factors could be among the real reasons for your distress. Being single or living alone could have little to do with it.

It is so easy to look at single people living alone during the pandemic and say, “You poor thing.” It fits right in with the prevailing deficit narrative of single life—a wildly misleading and unfair portrayal of what it means to be single. When inquiring minds turn their attention to cohabiting and married couples, though, they discover that many of them are also feeling the stress of the pandemic, in special ways that may be exacerbated by sharing a space. Their relationships may be suffering. These people are not single and they are not living alone, but that hasn’t necessarily spared them from stress, strife, loneliness, or sadness.

Getting Married and Not Getting Happier

Way too many movies, novels, love songs, advice columns, media stories, and fairy tales encourage magical thinking. If only that Prince or Princess Charming came along, we are led to believe, then all our wishes would come true. We could get married and then we would never be lonely again, and we would live happily ever after.

Scientific research, though, suggests something different. Some of the best evidence comes from 18 studies that followed the same people over years of their lives, as they went from being single to getting married. On the average, the people who got married experienced a brief increase in happiness around the time of the wedding; then they went back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. But even that short-lived honeymoon effect was only enjoyed by those people who got married and stay married. Those who were headed toward divorce were already becoming less happy as their wedding day drew near.

Every finding from scientific research is a result averaged across lots of people. That means there are always exceptions. Some people really do get married, get happier, and stay happier. It is wrong, though, to expect that to happen as a matter of course.

Living with Other People and Still Feeling Lonely

Being single isn’t the same as being alone, as I’ve discussed before. Single people often have robust social networks that they maintain diligently. Many single people live with other people, and some committed couples—including some married couples—live apart.

But even when “alone” means living alone, the connection with loneliness is not always the one we are led to expect. A study of more than 16,000 adults is a great example of why we often get confused about that. At first, the researchers just compared all the people who lived alone with all the people who lived with others (whether a romantic partner or anyone else). The people living alone were lonelier, just as the disparaging stereotypes insist.

The social scientists realized, though, that the people living alone differed from the people living with others in important ways. For example, they were doing less well financially. So then the researchers took the important next step of making sure that when they were comparing the two groups of people, they were similar to each other in important ways. When people living alone were compared to people living with others who were similar to them financially (and in other ways, too), then the results were entirely different: the people living alone were actually less lonely.

It’s Complicated

Humans are complicated and so are human emotions. It does a disservice to all of us to tell only one story of why we are feeling sad or lonely.

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