Typically, single people are happy. I’ve been scrutinizing the relevant studies for decades, and in every one, the average happiness of single people is always squarely on the happy end of the scale. What’s more, when people marry, they usually do not become any happier than they were when they were single. At best, they get a small spurt of increased happiness around the time of the wedding, which then fades. People who divorce end up less happy than they were when they were single.
Once we acknowledge that the conventional wisdom about single people is wrong, and that single people are happy, we need to address a new question: Why are single people so happy?
I think there are lots of reasons, but here I’ll address just one: Is it because they are free?
What does freedom look like in the lives of single people?
Sometimes freedom is about the decisions of everyday life. When it comes to things like what to eat and when, what shows to watch, what music to play, when to sleep, how to spend money, and how clean to keep your place, singles mostly get to decide those things for themselves.
That’s important, but freedom is also about even bigger things. Single people sometimes think about what really matters to them, and then go for it. They pursue their dreams. Sometimes they even walk away from secure, high-paying jobs to do so.
I’ve been collecting single people’s stories of the big things they have taken on that they would not have pursued if they were married. But I’m not just leaning on anecdotes here. Research shows that lifelong single people also care more about personal growth. We learned that from a study of single people and married people who had settled into their lives. Over a 5-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 people who had been married the whole time were more likely to agree with statements such as, “I gave up trying to make big improvements in my life a long time ago.”
On the average, people who stay single also care more about work that is meaningful. Typically, married people care more about things like pay and opportunities for advancement. Even when the people in the study were still in high school, and no one was married yet, the students who would end up staying single were already saying that they cared more about getting work that is meaningful than the students who would go on to get married.
So sometimes, what single people do with their freedom is to follow their passions and pursue their dreams.
But sometimes, they do something else entirely. What happens when aging parents start needing a lot of help? Who is there for them? Research shows that they are more likely to get that help from their grown children who are single than from their children who are coupled. That’s true regardless of whether they are black or white and regardless of whether their grown kids are sons or daughters.
And it is remarkable in a way, because when single people take time off from work to care for someone else, they are doing something particularly risky financially – they can’t rely on income from a spouse to tide them over.
It is not just their parents that single people show up for, and it is not just for big things like caring for people who are seriously ill. In everyday life, single people, on the average, are more likely than married people to help their friends, neighbors, and coworkers with errands, shopping, housework, yardwork, repairs, and rides. They also exchange more advice, encouragement, and moral and emotional support.
One important qualification about all that freedom single people have
Not all single people have all that much freedom. Some are in no position to take advantage of it. That’s because the category of single people is a very diverse group. It is also because single people, on the average, are seriously constrained by having less money, fewer resources, fewer legal protections, less respect, and less admiration than married people. Laws and practices, norms and values support married people’s lives more than single people’s.
What matters more than freedom itself is what single people choose to do with it
These studies I’ve been telling you about are all about choices single people make. They are about what single people choose to do with their freedom. And that, I think, is what’s most important about single people’s freedom. They get to choose how to use it. Being single frees you from a lot of expectations for what you should be doing with your life and who you should be doing it with. You get to design your own life in your own way.
Think about the question of the people who matter to you, the people you want to put at the center of your life. If you are married or have a serious romantic relationship, there is some expectation that your partner will have a big place in your life. Some people love that – they have their built-in plus-one. But others really don’t.
We know from research that single people have more friends, and that they do more to maintain their relationships with their friends and neighbors and relatives. But those findings, like all research results, are based on averages. There are some single people who don’t have many friends and don’t do much to nurture their bonds with their friends and relatives, and there are some married people who do a lot.
I think what may matter even more than how single people differ from married people on the average is all the variability from one single person to the next. What single people have is a choice. Some single people don’t want to have tons of friends and they don’t want to spend tons of time socializing with their friends and family. I’m one of them. I cherish the important people in my life, but if I want to go for long stretches without seeing anyone, I can do that. I don’t have a partner who is going to feel ignored or unloved or who is going to want to have a talk about whether there’s something wrong with our relationship.
Are you waiting for me to talk about sex? Okay, I’ll bite. Researchers have been tracking people’s sex lives for decades. For a while, it looked like married people were having more sex. But over time, married people have been having less sex. Now, single people, on the average, are having about as much sex as married people. There are even ways of looking at the data that suggest that single people are having more sex.
Now maybe, as someone who likes to stand up for single people, I should be applauding this finding. But again, what I think is more important than the average behavior across all single people is all the variability from one single person to another. What matters most, I think, is that single people have more of a choice. Within most committed couples, there are certain expectations. If you are in a couple and your sexual expectations match your partner’s, that’s great for you. If you are single, though, you don’t need to worry about matching. If you want to have a lot of sex, or sex with a number of different people, or if you don’t want to have any sex at all, there is no partner around giving you the stink eye.
Another really big example of the role of freedom and choice in the lives of people who are single is the decision about your living arrangement. If you are married, or if you have a serious relationship partner, you know what you are supposed to do – live with them! Some couples defy that expectation – they live apart, even though everyone expects them to live together. Mostly, though, that question about how they will live is answered for them – they will live with their partner. For people who want that, it’s great.
But again, not everyone does. If you are single and you can afford a place of your own, you can live all by yourself. Or if you have family that is game for it, you can live with them, maybe in one of those old-fashioned multi-generational households that are making a come-back. Or you can live under the same roof with friends. Or you can live in a co-housing community, or some other version of 21st century village life, where you may have a place of your own, but all around you are people who want to be neighborly.
In all the ways I’ve described, and more, what matters isn’t just that single people have freedom, but what they choose to do with it. Within the considerable constraints I described earlier (such as having less financial security and fewer legal protections), single people have the opportunity to put together what counts as a good life for them, as individuals. Rather than following the prescribed path, they can create their own path, if they dare.
And it seems that they do dare. Here’s something else people who stay single agree with more than people who get married:
“I judge myself by what I think is important, not by the values of what others think is important.”
So maybe the freedom single people have to choose the life that works for them is one of the many reasons why they are doing much better than we realized.
Single people’s freedom, though, is making a lot of people nervous. In a future post, I’ll explain the psychological basis for that fear, and why it is unfounded.