Earlier this year (2023), the Pew Research Center asked a representative national sample of adults in the U.S. what they thought it would take to live a fulfilling life. Participants were asked to indicate the importance of 5 factors: being married, having children, having close friends, having a job or career they enjoyed, and having a lot of money.
Marriage Was Considered Least Important to a Fulfilling Life
Only 23 percent of respondents to the survey said that marriage was either very important or extremely important in order to live a fulfilling life. That was the lowest percentage of all five categories. Very close to marriage, in their lack of importance to a fulfilling life, were having lots of money and having children. Only 24 percent thought that having lots of money was very or extremely important to a fulfilling life, and just 26 percent thought that having children was.
Having close friends was considered far more important: 61 percent said it was very or extremely important to living a fulfilling life, compared to just 23 percent for being married and 26 percent for having children.
The number-one key to a fulfilling life, though, was not any of those things; it was having a job or career you enjoy. More than 7 in 10 (71 percent) said this was very or extremely important in order to live a fulfilling life. This didn’t seem to be just about the money that employment brings; only 24 percent said that having lots of money was a key to fulfillment. What seemed to matter was that the work was enjoyable.
Do Married People Also Believe This?
The overall results I just presented were averaged across adults of all marital statuses. But what if we looked separately at the married people? Would we find that that they think marriage is more important than the other factors, but their attitudes are rendered invisible by averaging them in with everyone else’s? Not really.
Among married people, 29 percent said that being married was important to having a fulfilling life. That’s more than the average across people of all marital statuses: 23 percent. “Still,” the Pew Report noted, “married people place much greater importance on job satisfaction and having children than they do on being married.”
Here are the percentages of people in each marital status who believe that marriage is very or extremely important to a fulfilling life:
- Married: 29 percent
- Divorced, separated, or widowed: 18 percent
- Lifelong singles (“never married”): 15 percent
- Living with a romantic partner: 12 percent
A Timely Set of Findings
The third full week of September (this year, September 17-23) is “Unmarried and Single Americans Week.” The Census Bureau issues a press release every year to mark the event. If you look at this year’s statement, you will see from the two graphs included within it that for both men and women, the percentage of adults who are married has consistently decreased since around 1960, while the percentage who have been single their whole life (“never married”) has increased. Counting all adults who are not married (divorced, widowed, and always-single), there are now nearly as many adults in the U.S. who are not married as who are. Even people who do marry are getting around to it later and later in life.
In a previous post, I made the case that we are living in the age of friendship. Our changing demographics, needs, and values are consistent with a growing appreciation for close friendship. Increasingly, friends are represented in serious ways in popular culture, and scholars, too, are more often turning their attention to the study of friends. What they are finding is impressive. For example, in a study of more than 300,000 adults from 99 nations, people who valued friendship more were happier, healthier, and more satisfied with their lives.
Embracing Single Life Does Not Mean Disparaging Marriage
Discussions of the decades-long decrease in the percentage of married people and the equally longstanding increase in the percentage of lifelong single people have focused overwhelmingly on the former. Why, it is asked, are rates of marriage declining? That’s a marriage-centered way of thinking. Too often neglected is the singles-centered perspective that instead asks why so many people are staying single. That framing invites the possibility that many people are embracing single life for what it has to offer, not settling for single life because they never found The One. I call those people single at heart. As I've noted elsewhere, "Many single people are flourishing because they take advantage of the freedom and autonomy they often have in their lives, as well as the opportunities to live psychologically rich and meaningful lives. They flourish because of the skills they master, the solitude they savor, the people they value, and the love and intimacy they enjoy."
The people whom the single at heart value most are often their friends. They are also more likely than people who are not single at heart to value work that is meaningful. In those ways, they are living the values that most adults in the U.S., married or not, see as the keys to a fulfilling life.