Finding “the one” can feel exhilarating or exhausting, depending on your mindset, but an unrelenting focus on meeting a mate can actually blind you to the benefits of one-dom. People who embrace their single lives experience more psychological growth and development than their married counterparts, according to psychologist Bella DePaulo, a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.
“The preoccupation with the perils of loneliness can obscure the profound benefits of solitude,” says DePaulo, who cautions that we should not equate single life with loneliness. “Especially for people I call ‘single at heart’—people who live their best, most authentic, most meaningful and most fulfilling lives by living single—loneliness is not something they fear. Instead, they savor the time they have to themselves.” That’s not to deny the real perils of loneliness, says DePaulo, which can be detrimental to health and well-being. So why do people often conflate the words “single” and “lonely”?
“Being single threatens some of the most fundamental assumptions of our time; for example, that getting married is the route to a happy, healthy and meaningful life," says DePaulo. “It is especially threatening when the people bucking the norms seem to be living full and happy lives. So people zero in on the dark side, and insist that single people and people who live alone are going to be horribly lonely.”
Single people enjoy deeper rewards in everyday life, from a more satisfied work life to a richer social network, DePaulo asserts. Perhaps it’s because they’re not distracted by a partner. “When people marry they become more insular,” she says. While there is a dearth of research on single people (other than using them as a comparison group against their married counterparts), DePaulo says that the studies focusing on the lives of single people yielded interesting—and heartening—findings. For example, research comparing people who stayed single with those who stayed married showed that single people had a heightened sense of self-determination and were more likely to experience a sense of continued growth and development. And the more self-sufficient these people were, the less likely they were to experience negative emotions. For married people, the opposite was true.
People are marrying later in life, if at all, according to a report from a U.S. Census Bureau survey that shows since 1970, the median age for women to wed increased by 4.3 years to 25.1; for men the increase was 3.6 years to 26.8. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2014 there were 124.6 million unmarried Americans over age 16, which translates to just over half the nation’s adult population identifying as single. Compare that to 37.4 of the population identifying as single in 1976.
Why the change? One reason is that more than twice as many women are going to college compared to 30 years ago. And many women are putting their careers first, so they can shore up their bank accounts before tying the knot (if that’s what they choose). Fear may be a factor, too. With the divorce rate at around 35 percent in the 1990s, many people in their 20s and 30s watched their parents divorce and may be approaching marriage with caution.
”Single people enjoy deeper rewards in everyday life, from a more satisfied work life to a richer social network.”
Here are 10 things DePaulo says you never knew (but should) about being single:
1. People who are “single at heart” embrace their single life, they don’t bemoan it. They are able to live an authentic, meaningful life because they choose to, not because they have “issues” or because they haven’t found “the one.”
2. Claims that married people are happier, healthier and more integrated into society are “grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong,” says DePaulo. “Quite a few studies follow the same people as single then married. They routinely show that the people who get married end up no happier than they were when they were single. Sometimes there is a brief ‘honeymoon effect,’ meaning that they become a bit happier around the time of the wedding, but then they go back to being about as happy or unhappy as they were when they were single.”
3. People who get married do not end up any healthier or less depressed than when they were single, nor do they enjoy higher self-esteem, says DePaulo.
4. People who marry become more insular. They were more connected to parents and friends when they were single. “The claim that married people are more integrated into society is an example of a claim that is just plain wrong. Study after study has shown that people who are single are more connected to friends, siblings, parents and neighbors than married people are. In fact, when people get married, they become more insular—even if they don’t have kids,” says DePaulo. Why? “My guess is that it is about the way we think about coupling in contemporary American society. Think about all the songs with lyrics such as ‘you are my everything;’ ‘I just want to be your everything;’ or ‘there goes my everything.’ There’s this belief that couples should be everything to each other.”
5. Singles savor their solitude, and its profound rewards. In a survey of singles, DePaulo noted that only 5 percent of respondents viewed solitude with concern for being lonely; the other 95 percent looked forward to savoring their alone time.
6. Singles embrace bigger, broader meanings of relationships and love. They care about “the ones,” not just “the one.”
7. Singles develop a diversified portfolio of skills. The kinds of tasks that newly divorced and newly widowed people need to learn are ones that lifelong single people have already mastered.
8. Singles contribute in meaningful ways. They volunteer and contribute more than their share of caring for aging parents and people who need help for three months or more, even when those people are not family members.
9. Singles value opportunities to pursue their interests and do the work they care about the most. They care more about meaningful work than married people do. Lifelong single people develop a greater sense of autonomy over time than people who stay married.
10. Lifelong single people experience more personal growth and development than people who stay married.
With more than half the U.S. population identifying as single, married people have become the minority. So it’s ironic that the “single stigma” is still alive and well. DePaulo encourages people to ignore it. “If they like living single, they should live their single lives fully, joyfully and unapologetically.”