Move over Valentine’s Day — Singles’ Awareness Day, February 15th, is all about showing love for the SINGLES!! Even coupled folks can get sick of the sappy, romantic nature of Valentine’s Day, but it’s assumed that all of the miserable singletons among us are crying alone into their candy hearts on the day of love. Fortunately, excellent scientific research by Psychologists like Bella De Paulo is breaking down that stereotype and yielding some very surprising results. So, we at High Touch High Tech wish all you couples out there a happy Valentine’s Day, but to you singles we say, a truly happy Singles’ Awareness day to you too!
Across all media, the “happily ever after” of marriage is portrayed constantly, and there are hardly ever any happy portrayals of empowered single people enjoying their single life. Bella de Paulo, an expert on the psychology of single life, has pointed out that in most world societies, there is an overwhelming tendency to assume that partnership and marriage are a default human state, and that everyone fears being alone. This assumption has been so entrenched that it wasn’t questioned seriously by science until recently. However, in- depth psychological surveys of married people, single people, and divorced people are revealing that single folks are just as happy as married people, and single women may actually be the happiest of ALL! Shocking, isn’t it?
One of the first major studies of this kind, by Matthew Wright and Susan Brown of Bowling Green University, was focused on surveying people in their mid-fifties and beyond to find out how much having a romantic partner had mattered to people’s psychological well-being across a lifetime. They thought the happiest of all people would surely be the ones who were currently married, and the unhappiest of people were the single people who were not even dating. Married people were asked to rate their happiness before marriage, and after. What did the science show? Aside from a slight upward blip around the time of the marriage, married people’s happiness before and after the wedding stayed surprisingly the same. The group who went down the most in happiness over time were the people who had divorced and remained unmarried. Coming in overall just as happy and steady as married people throughout their lives? The never-married singles, especially women. For older women in the Wright and Brown study, partnership status made no statistical difference in their life happiness.
Wright and Brown were working from a model that was based on the idea that more social ties and attachments would increase well-being, and obviously married people had someone around all the time to attach to. The surprising results that single people, supposedly with less social ties and available care in their lives, could be just as happy can be interpreted in some interesting ways. One idea is that although there is a perception that romantic love and partnership is the ultimate satisfaction in life, some people are simply happier pursuing things like autonomy, purpose, mastery, or meaning. Studies have shown that single people are much more likely to report their lives have been “continuous processes of learning change and growth.” People can absolutely be happy single because they are pursuing meaningful work and purpose in their own lives that truly matter to them. Perhaps romantic love and partnership just isn’t the only kind of deep lifetime satisfaction out there?
Another interpretation is that although married people have built-in care, they become “insular” and bonded mostly to each other. Single people, however, tend to have more friends, spend more time building their social networks, and contributing to their communities. Single people are as happy as married ones because meaningful social relationships don’t have to come from having a romantic partnership. It may be that married people have THE ONE, but single people have THE ONES. As Paul Bloom, psych prof at Yale, says: “We need human contact. But the type of contact can vary a lot. So yeah, single people can be plenty happy.” And that’s the shocking truth about being single!
Sources and Further Reading:
An Introductory Explanation of the Wright and Brown Study: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-single/201611/no-partner-no-worries-new-study-psychological-health
The Wright and Brown Study: https://europepmc.org/article/MED/28626245
Bella De Paulo Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEELIrm9JKA
Why Unmarried Single Women may be the Happiest of All: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/25/women-happier-without-children-or-a-spouse-happiness-expert