- Research shows that people who marry typically do not become lastingly happier or healthier.
- Single people cared more than married people about values such as freedom, creativity, and trying new things.
- Whether singles can pursue passions and fashion a meaningful life depends on resources and opportunities.
In several online communities of single people, I posed the question, “In what ways do single people (or some subgroups of single people) excel?”
We had been discussing the often-repeated claims that currently married or coupled people are happier or healthier or better off than single people in some other way. In a previous post, I explained the methodological problems with those claims. I also pointed to more sophisticated research showing that people who marry typically do not become lastingly happier or healthier than they were when they were single. Some, such as those who divorce or become widowed, become less happy or healthy.
There is another important issue, too. When social scientists make claims about how single and coupled people are faring, they are doing so based on the available research. But what if researchers rarely study the kinds of skills, strengths, and advantages that single people—or some subgroups of single people—are especially likely to have? Then we would have a distorted view of what it means to be single—and coupled. We would also end up with a distorted view if the relevant research that did exist was mostly ignored.
In response to my question about how single people excel, more than 100 answers were posted. I’ll describe some of the main themes and, if there is relevant research, I’ll mention that, too.
More Freedom and Control
Freedom, independence, and control figure prominently in single people’s accounts of what they appreciate about living single. As one person put it, single people more often have control over “money, time, space, social interactions, relationships with other people, major life decisions such as moving, changing jobs, career change, going back to school, bodily autonomy... [That freedom and independence affords you] the ultimate chance to know yourself and develop yourself the way you want to and have full ownership of your self-development!” A few other people added that flying solo means more control over the role of pets in your life.
In his analysis of a survey of more than 200,000 adults from 31 European nations, fellow Psychology Today blogger Elyakim Kislev showed that single people (divorced and never married) cared more than married people about values such as freedom, creativity, and trying new things. People who cared more about those values, whether single or married, were happier. But the link between embracing those kinds of values and happiness was greater for single people than married people. Single people got more emotional benefits out of their valuing of freedom and creativity and trying new things. (In his book, Happy Singlehood, Kislev documented more than a dozen additional ways that single people typically do particularly well; I summarized them here.)
It is interesting that scholars, reporters, and pundits who tout the supposedly greater well-being of coupled people so rarely acknowledge the important role of freedom in the lives of people who are single, even though there is compelling research documenting it.
More Comfortable With Solitude
My research shows that people who are single at heart are far more likely to savor their solitude than people who are not single at heart. This is important; people who are comfortable with solitude are less likely to feel lonely than those who view time alone with trepidation. They are more likely to use their solitude constructively, too.
I don’t know of any research that compares single and coupled people in their comfort with solitude, but my guess is that more single than coupled people feel at home with themselves.
More Personal Growth
Some people suggested that single people are more likely to learn new things, pursue their interests and passions, and grow as a whole person.
Evidence comes from an older study comparing people who stayed single and those who stayed married over a five-year period. The single people were more likely to agree with statements such as, “For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, change, and growth.” The married people were more likely to agree with statements such as, “I gave up trying to make big improvements in my life a long time ago.”
More Confidence and Self-Assurance
Several people suggested that single people have more confidence in their decision-making, as they have a lot of practice making decisions on their own. Others made a related point, that single people are more likely to be sure about who they really are.
The same study of people who stayed single or stayed married over a five-year period also found that the single people were more likely to agree with statements such as, “I judge myself by what I think is important, not by the values of what others think is important.”
More Mastery of the Tasks of Everyday Life
Couples who live together typically split the chores and tasks of everyday life. That can have its advantages, even though conflicts over the fairness of the split are commonplace. Single people—especially those who live alone—need to learn how to do all those things themselves, or figure out how to find or hire someone to help.
Whether that feels empowering or burdensome at the moment, in the long run, it can be a great advantage. For example, when married people are newly widowed or divorced, they need to figure out how to do all the things their spouse used to cover, at a particularly difficult time. Single people have already figured out how to manage everything on their own. Maybe that’s why some studies have shown that there are ways in which people who have always been single do particularly well in later life.
Research has also shown that, emotionally, a sense of personal mastery and self-sufficiency serves lifelong single people better than continuously married people.
Several people suggested that, because they have to figure out how to get things done, single people are more resourceful, more creative, and better at multitasking. I don’t know of any research on that.
Showing Up for Other People More Often
A number of members of the online singles communities suggested that single people are more often there for their communities, families, colleagues, neighbors, and friends. They are right about that. Single people volunteer more for just about every kind of organization (except religious ones), they are especially likely to be there for their aging parents, and they are more generous with their time, money, and caring in other ways, too, that I reviewed here previously.
More Comfortable Going Solo in Public
Single people, on average, may be more comfortable going out to restaurants, movies, sporting events, and other cultural and social events on their own. I don’t know of any research on this. I do know, from my own research, that people dining alone are not judged any more harshly than people dining with others.
Greater Sense of Pride
Because single people achieve their successes without the help of a spouse (or, in the United States, any of the hundreds of benefits and protections married people get just because they are married), perhaps they experience a greater sense of pride in their accomplishments. I don’t know of any relevant research on this point.
An Important Caveat
The degree to which single people can pursue their interests and their passions and fashion a meaningful and fulfilling life depends importantly on their resources and opportunities. For example, living single can be particularly challenging for people who are struggling economically, physically, or emotionally; people who have disabilities; and people who have caregiving responsibilities.
For some single people, the singlism they experience (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people, and the discrimination against them) is exacerbated by other intersecting systems of inequality, such as those involving racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, and ableism.
And, yet, many single people do live joyful, meaningful, and fulfilling lives despite daunting obstacles. They have a lot to be proud of. All single people, even those without any extra challenges, need to deal with the singlism built right into the structures of society. The happiness, health, and well-being that single people achieve is a greater accomplishment than it is for coupled people who are so often advantaged in so many ways.
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