A Positive Psychology of Single Life

Scholars are a lot like the people in the media, the punditry, and popular culture – slow to acknowledge the ways in which single people lead full, meaningful, and fulfilling lives. The prevailing narrative has instead caricatured single people as somehow deficient, especially in comparison to married people.

College courses, textbooks, and academic journals all give single people (and the important people in their lives) short shrift. They are either excluded entirely, or, when they are included, it is often as a comparison group in studies in which the real interest is in the lives of married people and their supposed superiority.

Every so often, though, a scientifically-grounded and respectful representation of single people makes its way into the scholarly record. I am happy to report that this is one of those times.

Positive Psychology: Established and Emerging Issues, edited by Dana S. Dunn (a fellow blogger here at Psychology Today) was just published. Among the 18 chapters is one I wrote, “Toward a positive psychology of single life.”

Here are the first two sentences of the abstract:

Contrary to popular belief, research has not shown definitively that getting married causes people to be lastingly happier or healthier, to live longer, feel less lonely, or become less insular or self-centered. In some ways, it is the people who stay single who are doing the best.

And here are the first few paragraphs of the conclusion:

The belief in the transformative power of getting married is so strong, so enduring, and so resistant to change that it is not just any ordinary belief—it is an ideology. The Ideology of Marriage insists that just about everyone wants to marry, that people who marry become happier, healthier, and better off in many other ways, too, and that they are worthier people because of their marital status.

The power of the ideology is evident in the pervasiveness of stereotypes of single people. It is the ideology, I believe, that has had a role in the overwhelming interest that scholars have shown in married life, and their relative neglect of single life. At a time when the social sciences have become increasingly sophisticated, methodologically, researchers studying marital status—and the reporters who write about their work—are making claims that their studies simply cannot support. We can never demonstrate definitively that getting married causes people to become happier or healthier because we cannot do the kinds of studies that allow strong inference about causality. But even when social scientists use some of the best methodological approaches they can muster, such as long-term longitudinal research, the results are often not at all what we have been led to believe. Getting married sometimes results in no changes in well-being, or only short-term changes, or only changes for certain subgroups. Sometimes it is the lifelong single people who do the best. Even if future research were to show definitively that people who marry (including those who do not stay married) do better than people who stay single in certain ways, that would not necessarily mean that single people would also do better too if only they were coaxed to marry—they are different people than the people who chose to marry.

Considering the many significant ways in which single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and discriminated against, and considering too the relentless celebrating of marriage and weddings and coupling that saturates contemporary life, it is even more remarkable that single people are doing as well as they are. That’s what scholars need to address: How is it possible, despite all the singlism and matrimania, that so many single people are thriving? I have offered a preliminary set of answers, the beginnings of a positive psychology of single life, but some of my suggestions are speculative and need to be put to the empirical test, and there are far more ideas that need to be explored.

For too long, the ideology seems to have steered our scholarship toward the exploration of what is good and fulfilling about married life and what is problematic or lacking about single life. It has left us largely ignorant of the other half of the human equation: what is meaningful and empowering about single life and risky and limiting about married life. That needs to change.

Thank-you, Dana Dunn, for the opportunity to write this chapter and for the other terrific contributions you have assembled in this book.



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