For decades, single people have been relentlessly stereotyped, stigmatized, and marginalized – including even by social scientists. With wearying regularity, we have been told that single people are miserable creatures with terrible eating habits, and if only they would marry, they would become happy and healthy.
The early claims were based on unsophisticated studies and dubious interpretations of the findings. Now, finally, research is becoming much more impressive, and the findings suggest something entirely different. More than a dozen long-term studies have shown that when people marry, they become no happier than they were when they were single (except, sometimes, for a brief increase in happiness around the time of the wedding). If they marry and then divorce, they become less happy than they were when they were single. Studies of health undermine the old claims even more. People who marry describe their overall health as either no better, or a little worse, than when they were single.
We now have a whole new set of answers, thanks to a just-published book, Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, by Hebrew University sociologist and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Elyakim Kislev. Professor Kislev drew from interviews of 142 single people in the U.S. and Europe, and a close reading of hundreds of blog posts, newspaper and magazine articles, and social media comments and posts for his book. What I will focus on here is something else: the results of his analyses of data on hundreds of thousands of people from more than 30 European nations, plus the United States.
In my joyful romp through the pages of Happy Singlehood, I found evidence for 19 ways that single people are doing far better than the stereotypes of single people have led us to believe. Kislev documented their accomplishments and wise choices, their values, and what they get out of their values. He also found evidence of discrimination against singles and special challenges they face; that single people are doing so well despite those obstacles is further evidence for their resilience.
Different kinds of unmarried people have different experiences, so Professor Kislev often looks separately at never-married (or always-single), divorced or separated, and widowed people. When data on cohabiters are available, he includes them, too. Cohabiting couples are legally single (because they are not officially married and don’t get access to the many legal benefits and protections that come with marriage), but socially coupled (because they act like couples and are usually viewed and treated like couples).
What’s Impressive about Today’s Single People
#1 Single people are more highly educated than married people
Years of education
Results from more than 30 nations indicate that married people, on average, have the least education. Cohabiters have the most, followed by the lifelong single people.
#2 Single people are more social; they have more interactions with their friends and family
Summing up the results of his analyses of social interactions with friends and family members, Professor Kislev noted that “never-married individuals were the most social, followed by divorced/separated people, widowed people, cohabiters, and lastly, married people.”
The findings are consistent with earlier studies showing that single people – particularly lifelong single people – do more than married people to stay in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents. They also build on research showing that when couples move in together or get married, they become more insular.
#3 Single people are particularly adept at using the Internet to stay in touch with their friends and family
Professor Kislev offers this insight into how single people nurture their relationships with friends and relatives: “My analysis shows that many singles utilize technology and the Internet to connect with friends and family, while couples do so less often. All things being equal, divorced/separated individuals are the most proficient in interacting with friends and family over the Internet of the groups tested (15 percent more than couples), followed by the never-married (12 percent more than couples), while widowed individuals lag.”
#4 The eating habits of single people are healthier
When social scientists thought that getting married made people healthier, they offered some speculations as to why that was so. Among them was the sexist, heterosexist, and decidedly unromantic belief that once single women became wives, they would nag their husbands to eat their fruits and vegetables. (How that would help the wives become healthier than when they were single is beyond me.)
Well, stick a fork in that myth. It’s done. “My analysis shows that eating vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods is more prevalent among singles, especially among the never-married,” Professor Kislev noted.
#5 Staying single pays off with lesser loneliness in old age
Do you think that if you are single, you will grow old alone and end up horribly lonely? That’s the scare story that hounds us from when we are little children reading storybooks until we are grown-ups reading novels, watching TV shows and movies, and enduring offers of unsolicited advice from friends, relatives, and strangers on trains and planes.
If you get married, the story goes, you will avoid that sad and lonely fate. The right way to test that is to compare the people who never got married to those who did marry, whether they stayed married or not.
At age 65, Professor Kislev found, the lifelong single people were in fact a bit lonelier than the people who had married – a difference of about a quarter of a point on an 11-point scale. Over the course of their adult lives, though, more and more married people feel lonely. Kislev found that “the share of married people feeling lonely is around 50 percent more at age sixty than thirty, and that it doubles by the age of ninety.”
Meanwhile, the loneliness of lifelong single people increases much less. By age 70, it is the people who married who are now lonelier, and that continues all the way through the oldest of ages. The lifelong single people are less lonely. (The graph is on p. 50, if you have the Happy Singlehood book.)
The Values of Today’s Single People
#6 Single people’s values are consistent with the post-materialistic values of our time
Around the world, values are becoming post-materialistic and individualistic. People increasingly value freedom, creativity, fun, and trying new things. Traditionalism is giving way to experimentation with different ways of living. That development has become a source of concern for some, but as I will document below, individualistic values pay off for single people.
Kislev found that married people scored lowest on all four post-materialistic values: freedom, creativity, fun, and trying new things. Cohabiters and divorced people scored significantly higher than the married people on all those values. The lifelong single people valued freedom and fun markedly more than the married people did, but they were about the same as the married people on valuing creativity and trying new things. (Kislev noted that the latter “may be more reflective of the never-married people who want to get married, not the ‘singles by choice’.”)
#7 It is especially important to single people to be able to make their own decisions
Among the married people, 25 percent said it was important to make their own decisions and be free. Among the people who were not married, 29 percent said that was important.
In my research, I found something similar: People who are “single at heart” (single life is their best life) like making their own decisions more than people who are not “single at heart.”
#8 Life accomplishments are especially important to single people
Many single people have told me about the special things they have been able to accomplish in their lives that they may not have been able to achieve if they had been married. In his quantitative analyses, Kislev found that “singles value life accomplishments on average more than married individuals do.”
What Singles Get Out of their Values and Ways of Living
When you learn that single people are more social than married people, or that they value freedom more, you might think to yourself, “yeah, so what?”. Professor Kislev took that potential for dismissiveness very seriously and conducted some creative analyses. Whenever he had the data to do so, he studied whether singles’ ways of living (such as being sociable) and their values (such as wanting to be free) were linked to their happiness. Of course, some married people are also sociable and value freedom, so Kislev also looked at whether single people were getting any more happiness out of their lifestyles and values than married people. The results were the same in every instance.
#9 Single people get more happiness out of their social activities
For everyone, whether married or unmarried, greater sociability is linked to greater happiness. On the average, people who do more sociable things, such as going out with friends or volunteering, are happier than those who are less sociable. (As always, the results are averages and there are many individual exceptions.) Single people, though, seem to get more happiness out of their social lives than married people do. The link between sociability and happiness is stronger for them.
#10 Single people get more happiness out of their post-materialistic values
Contrary to what many pundits have suggested, post-materialistic values are not making people miserable. Quite the contrary. Averaged across people of all marital statuses, the more people value freedom, creativity, trying new things, and fun, the happier they are.
The people who are not married (divorced, widowed, and lifelong single people) get even more happiness out of their post-materialistic values than married people do. Kislev found that the links between their happiness and their valuing of freedom, creativity, fun, and trying new things are stronger.
There are two ways that singles are served especially well by their individualistic values. First, they tend to care about those values even more than married people do. And second, even when they care about those values no more than married people do, they get more happiness out of those values.
Cohabiting couples have a somewhat different profile. They care about post-materialistic values more than married people do, but they do not get any more happiness out of those values.
#11 Single people get more happiness out of their satisfaction with their jobs
Previous research has shown that single people care about work that is meaningful even more than married people do. In his analyses, Kislev looked at the links between job satisfaction and happiness. His interest was in satisfaction as meaningfulness and self-fulfillment, so he set aside matters of salary and convenience. He found that “job satisfaction contributes to the overall happiness of singles more than it does to that of married individuals.”
#12 For single people, wanting to make their own decisions is more strongly linked to their happiness
In #7, I noted that it is more important to single people than married people to be able to make their own decisions. The difference, though, may have struck you as not all that impressive: 29 percent of unmarried people said that was important, compared to 25 percent of married people.
But look what happens when we focus on just those people who are above average in happiness. Now the difference is twice as big: 37 percent of unmarried people say it is important to be able to make their own decisions, compared to 29 percent of married people. The implication seems to be that single people are getting more happiness out of the value they place on making their own decisions.
A previous study comparing lifelong single people to married people found something even more striking. Among single people, the more self-sufficient they were, the less often they experienced negative emotions. In contrast, married people’s self-sufficiency undermined their well-being; the more self-sufficient they were, the more often they experienced negative emotions.
#13 For single people, positive self-perceptions are more strongly linked to happiness
To the surprise of no one, people who feel more positively about themselves are happier. That’s true for married people and it is true for every category of unmarried people (divorced, widowed, and lifelong singles). Again, though, people who are not married get more happiness out of their positive feelings about themselves. “The unmarried group gains more from every additional uptick in their own positive-self-perception,” Kislev said.
#14 For single people, optimism is more strongly linked to happiness
Among single people, those who are more optimistic are happier than those who are less optimistic. Comparing unmarried people to married people produces the usual result: divorced, widowed, and lifelong single people get more happiness out of their optimism than married people do. The links between optimism and happiness are stronger for them.
#15 For single people, feeling accomplished and valuable is more strongly linked to happiness
Another unsurprising finding is that feeling accomplished and valuable is linked to positive feelings. Maybe by now, the second part is also unsurprising: compared to people who are married, unmarried people get more happiness out of their feelings of accomplishment. Specifically, according to Kislev, “feeling accomplished and valuable helps the never-married and widowed groups gain a happiness level measuring 0.4 points higher than the gain of married people (on a scale of 0-10), while divorced people gain 0.2 points more the gain of couples.”
Singles Are Doing Well Despite the Challenges They Face
#16 Single people are doing well despite experiencing greater discrimination
Adding to the growing evidence for discrimination against single people, mostly from studies conducted in the U.S., Kislev discovered something similar in his analyses of the data from more than 30 European nations: “I found that unmarried people experience 50% more discrimination than married people do.”
As for whether discrimination undermines happiness, Kislev found that “discrimination harms the well-being of divorced, separated, or widowed singles up to 25 percent more than married individuals.”
#17 Single people are doing well despite their dissatisfaction with their pay
People who are not married are unhappy with their pay. Kislev explains that “although singles derive a greater benefit from job satisfaction, they feel they are not being paid appropriately considering their efforts when compared to married colleagues. This is especially true for the never-married.”
In previous research, analyses of actual salary differences (instead of people’s feelings about the appropriateness of their salaries) have shown that single men are in fact paid less than married men, even when they have the same level of accomplishments and seniority. The results are less clear for women.
#18 Singles are doing well despite their dissatisfaction with work-life balance
There is growing concern that work is becoming too demanding and needs to be better balanced with the rest of life. That concern, though, has focused overwhelmingly on people who are married – especially those who are married with children.
Kislev, though, found that it is unmarried people who feel most off-balance: “singles feel that the balance between their personal lives and their jobs is less satisfactory than that of married individuals.” Among the different categories of unmarried people, the widowed and divorced felt most dissatisfied with their work-life balance.
#19 Single people are doing well despite being less religious
Here are the results from Kislev’s analyses of religiosity in the European nations:
23% of cohabiters are not religious
18% of lifelong single people are not religious
17% of divorced people are not religious
12% of married people are not religious
Neither Good nor Bad: Here’s Where Married and Unmarried People Live
I’m not sure it is any more or less impressive to live in a big city compared to a small town, so this last point is just a fun fact.
#20 Single people live in more densely populated places
Drawing from the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, Kislev calculated the average population in the cities and towns where people of various marital statuses live. “More and more singles live in metropolitan areas, disproportionately to other regions,” he said.
Here are the average populations of the places where people of different marital statuses live.
From Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, we now know that single people are more highly educated than married people, more sociable, and more adept at using the Internet to stay in touch with friends and relatives. If they stay single, they end up less lonely in old age than people who married.
People who are not married embrace post-materialistic values such as freedom, creativity, and trying new things. It is important to them to make their own decisions and they are proud of their accomplishments.
Single people’s values and ways of living pay off for them. They get more happiness out of their social lives, their individualistic values, their satisfaction with their jobs, their interest in making their own decisions, their positive self-perceptions and confidence, and their sense of being valued and accomplished.
That single people are doing so well is especially remarkable in view of the special challenges they face. They experience more discrimination, they feel that they are not being paid appropriately, and they experience relatively high levels of imbalance between their work and the rest of their lives. Religiosity is linked to happiness, but single people are not very religious.
The story of today’s single people is entirely different from the old tales of woe and doom. Single people, we now know, are typically happy, healthy, highly-educated, well-connected with other people (the opposite of isolated), proud of their accomplishments, and resilient in the face of the special challenges that come their way.