Decades ago, all the people in the small town of Oxford, Ohio who were older than 50 were invited to participate in a long-term study of aging and retirement. They were asked many questions when they first joined the study, and they were followed for decades by researchers who asked them many more questions and kept track of how they were doing.
One of the questions they were asked the first time around was, “Do you agree or disagree that as you get older you are less useful?” When Becca Levy, currently a professor of epidemiology at Yale, learned about that question, and that she could figure out who was still living more than two decades later, she knew what she wanted to do. She thought that having positive instead of negative views about aging could add years to your life, and now she could test it.
She was right. The people in the study who just didn’t believe that as you get older, you become less useful, lived an average of 7.5 years longer than the people who did have those negative views about aging. She found that boost to longevity even after taking into account many other factors that could be relevant to longevity, such as race, socioeconomic status, gender, age, loneliness, and health. The implications of having positive beliefs about aging were even stronger than the effects of having low blood pressure or low cholesterol (they each added four years to your life) or not smoking (which added three years) or having a low body mass index (that added one year).
That finding has now been replicated in 10 countries. Professor Levy, and other social scientists interested in this important work, have now conducted scores of studies using different kinds of measures of positive and negative beliefs about aging, with more different kinds of questions assessing beliefs about aging, and different kinds of studies. The evidence is overwhelming: Positive beliefs about aging can add years to your life, and improve the quality of your life, and negative beliefs about aging can do the opposite. I learned about this research, and the explanations and implications, from Professor Levy’s publications in academic journals as well as from her new book, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live.
How Can Your Beliefs about Yourself Affect the Quality and Length of Your Life?
Many beliefs about older people are ageist. They are based on negative and misleading stereotypes, such as the belief that old people can’t learn new things, they all experience dementia, they all experience cognitive decline, they are fragile, they no longer contribute to society, and they are ineffective in the workplace.
In countries such as the U.S., people swim in a sea of these stereotypes all through their lives, from the storybooks they read as children to the TV shows and movies and advertisements from the anti-aging industry they see all through the rest of their lives. Children can internalize those stereotypes and carry those negative expectations about their own aging into later life.
Once beliefs are internalized, they can affect the quality and length of your life in three ways:
- Physiological pathways. Ageism can cause stress, and stress can undermine health and long-term survival. Positive beliefs about your own aging can instead protect you from the worst effects of stress and help you recover from it more quickly.
- Psychological pathways. Internalized ageist beliefs can undermine the sense that life is worth living when you are old, whereas positive beliefs can do the opposite. In a study, older participants who were subliminally exposed to positive stereotypes about aging said they would be more willing to try a difficult but life-prolonging treatment than those exposed to negative stereotypes.
- Behavioral pathways. Older people who have negative beliefs about aging—for example, that their health is just going to get worse and worse no matter what they do—are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors, and then they actually do become less healthy. In contrast, older people with more positive beliefs about aging are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and then stay healthy longer.
How Is This Relevant to Single People?
The studies Professor Levy conducted, and the many others she reviewed, were all relevant to ageism, not singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people, and the discrimination against them). I don’t know of any studies that directly tested the implications of internalizing negative or positive beliefs about being single for the quality or length of our single lives.
However, what we do know about the psychology of single life suggests that negative or positive beliefs about being single may operate in similar ways as beliefs about aging. They may be just as powerful, too, for a few reasons:
1. Singlism is pervasive.
Negative portrayals of single people are pervasive and relentless. They are in storybooks, TV shows, movies, and advertisements. Single people are targeted with singlism in everyday life when other people express more interest in their romantic love life or their romantic prospects than anything else. Like ageism, singlism is structural as well as interpersonal—it is embedded in laws, policies, and practices.
2. Singlism is practiced without apology or awareness.
In Breaking the Age Code, Levy notes that “according to the World Health Organization, ageism is the most widespread and socially acceptable prejudice today.” Studies of isms, though, rarely include singlism.
Wendy Morris and Stacey Sinclair and I found out what happens when singlism is included. In our studies of housing discrimination, we found that discrimination against single people was considered at least as legitimate as discrimination against old people, and more legitimate than discrimination against women, gays or lesbians, obese people, or African Americans.
3. Singlist practices undermine single people’s health and longevity.
In her important work, Professor Joan DelFattore has shown that oncologists sometimes offer less aggressive treatments to their single patients, based on their inaccurate and demeaning perceptions of single people; that can undermine single patients’ likelihood of surviving. Other research shows a bias toward considering unmarried people less worthy of life-saving organ transplants than married people.
Those studies are more relevant to other people’s singlist beliefs than to single people’s internalization of those beliefs, but getting treated like your life is less valuable isn’t going to do much to facilitate positive beliefs about what it means to be single.
4. Rampant singlism can distort single people’s understanding of their own lives.
In How to Be Alone, Sara Maitland said:
“If you tell people enough times that they are unhappy, incomplete, possibly insane and definitely selfish there is bound to come a grey morning when they wake up with the beginnings of a nasty cold and wonder if they are lonely rather than simply ‘alone’.”
Similarly, as I’ve discussed previously, if you are single and feeling down, you might be inclined to think that you are sad because you are single, and if only you would find a romantic partner, you wouldn’t be sad anymore. In contrast, if you are coupled and feeling sad, you might instead think, well, everyone feels sad sometimes; it has nothing to do with being coupled. These kinds of singlism-induced distortions in thinking can undermine single people’s motivation to live their best single lives and instead goad them into trying to unsingle themselves.
5. Life-affirming positive beliefs about being single.
Despite the relentlessness of the singlism that single people are faced with throughout our lives, some single people successfully resist it and feel happy and secure about their single lives. Research shows that between the ages of 40 and 85, single people become happier and happier with their lives. (The results for coupled people are less straightforward.)
In a study that included younger adults, too, single people who were not looking for a partner—who are especially likely to have positive beliefs about single life—were especially likely to experience greater and greater life satisfaction. People who want to be single also tend to value their friends more and have more satisfying social lives than single people who want to be coupled.
Of all single people, none are more likely to resist the negative stereotypes and embrace all that single life has to offer than the Single at Heart—people for whom single life is their most authentic, meaningful, and fulfilling life. Don’t try to taunt the Single at Heart with admonitions that we are going to be lonely; we cherish the time we have to ourselves. Don’t try to scare us out of our single lives by insisting that we don’t have anyone; we know that, when we do not organize our lives around a romantic partner, we can be open to valuing and tending to more people and more different kinds of people. We are more likely to have “emotionships,” “The Ones” rather than “The One.”
And don’t tell us that because we don’t have a romantic partner at the center of our lives, we don’t have a life at all. One of the things we love about being single is the freedom it offers to pursue our authentic interests and values and enjoy a psychologically rich life.