Single, living alone and navigating life solo? Bella explains the 13 things that help make single life a happy life.
What are the things that make single life a happy life? The question has never been more relevant. In many nations around the world, the number of single people has been growing for decades. In the U.S., for example, there are nearly as many adults 18 and older who are not married as married. And newly released data from the General Social Survey shows that the share of adults who are not just unmarried but have no steady romantic partner is at an all-time high of 35%.
Although many economic, sociological, demographic, religious, and cultural factors have been summoned to explain the rise of single people, a simple psychological phenomenon cannot be discounted. For more people, single life is their happy place.
We are starting to understand why. With the publication of the book, Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living by Hebrew University sociologist Elyakim Kislev, we now have the most comprehensive, research-based accounting of single people’s happiness on record.
Professor Kislev analyzed data from about 300,000 people from 32 European nations who took part in the European Social Survey between 2002 and 2016. In addition to answering the happiness question -“Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” – participants also responded to questions about their social activities, values, self-perceptions, and satisfaction with their jobs.
Arguably, happiness isn’t so hard for single people who are still in their 20s. Their relatives probably haven’t yet started badgering them about when they are going to get married, and they are likely to have a decent number of single friends.
All that is at risk of changing once they turn 30. Kislev wanted to understand how single people achieve happiness when being single becomes more trying, so he included in his analyses only people who are older than 30.
What Makes Single Life A Happy Life?
Answers from hundreds of thousands of people from more than 30 nations
Happy single people, Kislev found, were those who were especially likely to spend time with friends, family, and colleagues. They also felt positively about themselves and their jobs, were more optimistic, and felt accomplished and valued.
Although there has been much fretting that the embrace of non-traditional practices and values is making people miserable, Kislev found the opposite. The single people who cared more about values such as freedom, creativity, and trying new things were happier.
In an important way, though, those findings were unremarkable. The psychology of happiness, at first blush, looked the same for people who were married as for those who were not. Married people, too, were happier if they spent time with friends and family, felt positive about themselves, and all the rest.
Where married and unmarried people diverged was in the degree to which some of these happiness-enhancing factors filled their lives. For example, compared to married people, unmarried people (including the divorced or separated, widowed, and lifelong single people) socialise more often with their friends, relatives, and coworkers. They are spending more time doing the kinds of things that make people happy.
In the final and most telling step in his analyses, Kislev asked whether the key factors were just as powerfully linked to happiness for the married people surveyed as for the unmarried. They weren’t.
In just about every instance, single people got more happiness out of socialising, their values, and their positive perceptions of themselves and their jobs. For example, while married people got some happiness from socialising, single people got even more. That was true even when Kislev compared single and married people who were similar in the time they spent with family, friends, and colleagues.
Why do single people get more happiness out of their social lives? A definitive answer has not yet been established, but Kislev offered several possibilities.
First, married people can be constrained in their socialising by the preferences of their spouse. Single people have more flexibility to decide whom they are going to hang out with, when, and for how long.
Second, they use that freedom to make more expansive choices. Singles, Kislev notes, “meet more diverse people and engage in a wider variety of activities.” For instance, when married and single people list their confidants, married people mostly name family.
Single people are more likely to name non-kin (such as friends) as well as kin. Many single people take advantage of the freedom that single life offers to pursue their dreams; some of those dreams are intensely social and involve activities that range far beyond the ordinary.
Lots of research has shown that single people are more attentive to their friends, neighbours, co-workers, siblings, and parents. Kislev thinks this points to a third explanation: Maybe single people get more happiness out of the time they spend with these people because they are more central to their lives.
Married people are celebrated for having found ‘the one’. Single people have a variety of people who matter to them, aka “the ones,” and that can be a boon to their happiness.
Kislev also found something else he sees as relevant: Married people are less proficient at using technology and the internet to stay in touch with friends and family. Divorced and separated people are the standouts at this, with lifelong single people close behind.
What Makes Single Life A Happy Life?
What else might matter?
The fundamental finding that people who socialise more are happier is a summary of the typical psychological dynamic, averaged across the hundreds of thousands of people in the survey. As is true of every finding from the social sciences, there are plenty of exceptions.
My own research with people who live their best lives by being single—I call them “single at heart”—shows that for them, more socialising is not always going to translate into more happiness. Solitude matters, too. Anticipating a stretch of time they will have all to themselves, they are more likely to think, “Ah, sweet solitude,” than to worry that they might feel lonely.
For single people of all stripes, the road to happiness is packed with obstacles in the form of stereotypes and scare stories. “You are going to be alone!” they are warned as if that is a bad thing. But for those who love living alone and spending time alone, it is a dream come true.
Facing down the stereotypes, the stigma, the marginalising, and the discrimination (that is, the singlism) is its own form of happiness for people who are single. The process can feel demeaning and difficult, but when single people emerge victorious over attempts to dissuade them from living the life that suits them best, that can be empowering.
The values that single people hold dear are not just ways of thinking about the world; they are ways of living. Singles want to exercise the freedom that is so important to so many of them. They want to be the captain of their own voyages. Sometimes they confer with other people about their plans, but the final decisions are theirs alone.
Happy single people value openness and flexibility. In their social lives, for example, they appreciate the option to go to different events with different people (rather than the predictable plus-one of a spouse), or they just stay home. In their home lives, they can decide when they feel like straightening or cleaning up and when they just want to leave things as they are.
Single people who live alone don’t get to divvy up all the errands, household chores, and tasks of everyday life. But mastering all those skills for themselves, or finding other ways to get everything done, can be fulfilling.
Not all single people want to be single. The happiest single people are those who are living their lives to the fullest, taking advantage of the opportunities that are not so available to the conventionally coupled, regardless of whether the time they spend single lasts for a season or for a lifetime.
What Makes Single Life A Happy Life?
Based on an enormous supply of survey data, here’s what we know about what makes single people happy. (A note of caution: We don’t know for sure that these factors cause happiness. It is possible that the process works some other way. For example, maybe socialising doesn’t make people happy, but, instead, people who are happy spend more time socialising.) In just about every instance, single people get more happiness out of each of these factors than married people do.
13 Things That Make
Single Life A Happy Life
1. Spending time with friends, family, and colleagues.
2. Feeling positively about ourselves.
3. Feeling optimistic.
4. Feeling positively ourjobs.
5. Feeling accomplished and valued.
6. Valuing freedom, fun, creativity, and trying new things.
Professor Kislev could only address the factors that participants were asked about in the survey. My own study of single people suggests that other factors may be important, too, at least for some single people. (The word of caution for this section is that not all single people have the resources or opportunities to do all of these things.) These ideas are more suggestive.
They are based on some survey data, but not nearly as much as the European Social Survey offers; they are also culled from several decades of talking to single people and reading widely on the topic. Based on his own studies of single people apart from the survey results, Kislev, I think, would agree with many of these factors.
7. Having time for ourselves.
8. Living alone—or in exactly the sort of household that suits us, no matter how unconventional.
9. Defying stereotypes and conventional expectations about how to live a good life.
10. Getting to be the director (and not the co-director) of our lives.
11. Taking advantage of the flexibility that is more available to single people.
12. Mastering the tasks of everyday life without relying on someone else to do their unfair share.
13. Taking advantage of the opportunities that are uniquely available to people who are single.