I have quite a few friends who are single. Not all of them chose to be—some are widowed, some divorced, and that meant dealing with the unexpected loss of a loving partner. But it’s clear that some friends are single by choice—and they’re loving it!
This may seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Many of us grew up with the belief that the greatest joy in life is marrying your true love, who then provides constant companionship, affection, and support. And some research seems to suggest that, overall, people are happier when they’re married and that strong relationships (including romantic ones) are key to a life of well-being.
But, with more and more people living the life of a single person—and more of them by choice—it raises the question: Is being single actually a drag on our happiness or not?
The upsides of being single
Bella DePaulo is a researcher and author of the book Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. Studying people who are “single at heart”—meaning, those who chose singlehood because they felt they could live their best life that way—she has found many single people are just as happy or happier than married or partnered people.
“Single people have freedom to live life the way they want to (within their means), from the smallest decisions of everyday life—what to eat and when, when to go to sleep and get up—to the biggest, most life-changing decisions,” she says. “They get to live their most authentic, meaningful, fulfilling, and psychologically rich life.”
DePaulo debunks the stereotype of the sad, lonely single. Single people are often more integrated into their communities than married people, who can become more insular after marriage, she says. Singles go out to restaurants, take classes, and volunteer in their communities, making them a vital part of the social fabric.
They also connect more with families, neighbors, and friends, and are more available to provide assistance to others (and receive it from others), she says. Their greater investment in friendships can increase their self-esteem and fulfill their intimacy and closeness needs. In fact, one study that considered data from over 16,000 Germans found that people living alone were less lonely than people who were living with someone else—at least when they had comparable income, work status, and other life circumstances.
“People who are single at heart like their solitude. They like having time to themselves, though most also like socializing. That means they are rarely lonely,” she says.
“Single people have freedom to live life the way they want to . . . from the smallest decisions of everyday life . . . to the biggest, most life-changing decisions”
DePaulo finds fault with some of the research suggesting that marriage itself makes people happier. Often, she says, studies compare single people with married people without taking into account factors outside of steady companionship that may be relevant to their happiness. If you correct for that, she says, you often find single people are happier than married people.
“Researchers say, ‘Hey look, these married people are happier than these single people,’ and they let their listeners jump to the conclusion that the married people are happier because they are married,” she says. “But if that were true, then when single people get married, they should get happier, and that’s not true.”
The downsides of being single
That doesn’t mean that there are no downsides to being single—or that people who don’t want to be single won’t feel lonelier or unhappier than their happily married peers.
Geoffrey MacDonald, who studies relationships and singlehood in his lab at the University of Toronto, says that research on singles has been lumping together people who do want a partner—who probably find being single less enjoyable—with people who don’t.
“If you want a job and don’t have one, you’re probably less happy than somebody who doesn’t want a job. It’s the same thing with romantic relationships,” he says.
Single people can’t turn to a partner for social support—to soothe their feelings when they’re distressed or offer practical help when needs arise, he says. Instead, friends or family can offer similar support—though close family can be a mixed bag, says MacDonald.
“Single people often report that not having a partner means they’re sometimes expected to take care of their aging parents (more than others),” he says. “Or sometimes it’s their family that gives them the most grief about being single.”
Creating a social network when you’re single requires skills that some people may be better at than others, depending on their attachment style. In his research, MacDonald has found that people who are securely attached—meaning, they are comfortable with intimacy and value relationships—also tend to be happier single, as well as happier in life. Those who have avoidant attachment styles—who devalue intimacy and are uncomfortable with emotions—are typically fine with singlehood, but less happy in life than secure people.
“If you avoid closeness, you may have fewer hassles that come with being close to someone,” he says. “But then you also don’t get the social connection that a lot of people need to make sure that they don’t tip over into loneliness.”
Those singles who are anxiously attached—who fear rejection and seek approval from others—tend to have the strongest desire to be partnered and are most unhappy with their lives overall, he says. Anxious singles are often worried that they can’t make it through life on their own, which doesn’t just affect their romantic life but all their relationships.
“Anxious people can be overly dependent, which not only means they wish for a romantic partner, but can make them needy and clingy with friends and family, too,” he says.
Another important factor in a single person’s happiness is their level of sexual satisfaction. While people who are married may assume that single people are free to have amazing sexual adventures, it’s not often the case, says MacDonald. Instead, committed partners are more likely to have satisfying sexual lives—in part because of the proximity and availability of sexual opportunities. This holds true whether singles are male or female, he adds—despite what people may believe about the differing sexual needs of men and women.
“At least in a monogamous, heteronormative culture, people get their sexual needs met to a large extent in committed romantic relationships,” says MacDonald. “I think that’s the part that’s harder to replace.”
Another thing that can get in the way of singles being happy is that they face discrimination, says DePaulo. Too often, single people are typecast unfairly and made to feel unworthy in some way.
“People think there’s something wrong with you or you are self-centered or you are just not as mature as married people—none of which is true,” she says.
Single people are also discriminated against by social institutions, she adds. Married people receive all kinds of financial and other benefits from the government, workplaces, colleges, places of worship, and the health care system that are not available to single people—like tax credits, family leave, married student housing, and more—increasing a single’s cost of living.
“If you are single and you live alone, then you have more financial challenges because you need to pay all your bills yourself,” she says. “You also don’t get some of the discounts that people get when they buy larger quantities of items or when two people go in on a membership or a subscription.”
What frustrates DePaulo is how often this is not mentioned when people proclaim the benefits of being married versus single—and how that ignores the potential strengths of single people. For example, single people often have to be more resilient, developing a broad range of skills that married people might end up relegating to a spouse. They may also be more openminded and have a broader sense of what love means, not feeling pressured to focus all of their affection on “the one,” she says.
Ultimately, satisfaction with singlehood tends to increase after midlife, says MacDonald. But that may be part of a general trend toward increased happiness post midlife, which is also true of people who are happily partnered at that point. Perhaps, he says, people just start accepting the choice they’ve made—to be partnered or not—and they know how to make it work for them.
Singlehood and Valentine’s Day
What does that mean for singles as Valentine’s Day approaches?
DePaulo points out that Valentine’s Day may be less problematic for singles than for those in romantic relationships. Often couples feel pressured to participate in elaborate rituals or gift-giving that are less than satisfying, she says, which could actually backfire and make them unhappy. Plus, she adds, singles can have their own way of honoring relationships.
“I appreciate the greater recognition of holidays for friends—for example, Galentine’s Day and Friendsgiving,” she says. “There are lots of kinds of love that can be celebrated, and they can be celebrated any day of the year.”
MacDonald says that the fact that this nationally celebrated holiday exists at all sends a message that people are supposed to be in a romantic relationship, which is not helpful. It not only shows what’s valued by society, it also may give people the false hope that romance is the solution to their life’s problems.
“The dangerous part of some of these societal messages is that it makes it seem like romantic relationships are some kind of a quick fix,” he says. “It’s important to get right with yourself first—to develop emotional stability and build a life you’re happy with, consistent with your values. Otherwise, a romantic relationship is just a recipe to make two people miserable instead of one.”
Still, if you’re single and Valentine’s Day does bring on disappointment or sadness around the state of your romantic life, you shouldn’t necessarily suppress your feelings. But, says De Paulo, you can try to embrace the benefits of being single.
“Take advantage of the time you spend single to do the kinds of things you really like, that maybe you won’t get to do if you become coupled,” she says.
MacDonald agrees that appreciating the freedom that singlehood brings is the key to getting through the holiday—and through life, in general.
“One of the primary advantages of being single is that if you want to take up a hobby, go on a trip, or visit a friend, no one’s going to give you any grief about it,” he says. “The healthiest, happiest singles are the ones who act on that.”