When Eva Papadopoulou was 35 and single, all her friends were getting married and having babies. Instead of scrambling to do the same, she set off on the adventure of a lifetime. For a year, she traveled around the world, stopping in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Costa Rica. Along the way, she taught English as a foreign language, volunteered in schools and at an HIV center, at a conservation center and at an elephant sanctuary.
“I came back full of creativity, energy and wisdom,” she told me. “I changed my career, did a second master’s degree, and lived happily ever after.”
That’s not the typical story we hear about people who are single. Too often, in movies, TV shows, novels and popular songs, single people are tirelessly seeking coupledom rather than living their single lives to the fullest.
Eva told me her story over dinner when I was in London to talk about the role of freedom in the lives of people who are single. Other Brits also shared the special opportunities their single lives afforded them. They inspired me to ask dozens of other single people: “Have you ever done anything really big in your life that you probably would not have done if you were married or in a serious romantic relationship?”
They recounted their great adventures and their passion projects. They told me about turning their backs on secure, well-paying jobs to pursue work they loved, and they described experiences that gave their lives deep meaning.
Many of the pursuits were daunting and risky. Wouldn’t people with the emotional support and backup paycheck of a spouse have an advantage in making their dreams come true? Undoubtedly, some do. But the people I heard from, some of whom were previously married, told a different story.
In Eva’s case, money wasn’t an issue. She saved up for the trip and traveled frugally, sharing rooms and trying street food.
Taking responsibility for the entire trip, making her own schedule without checking in with anyone, and dealing with crises on her own gave her “an immense sense of empowerment,” she told me. She came back feeling invigorated.
Like many other unpartnered people, Eva’s self-sufficiency served her well. A study comparing lifelong single people to married people found that for the single people, the more self-sufficient they were, the less likely they were to experience negative feelings. For the married people, it was the opposite: The more self-sufficient they were, the more likely they were to experience negative feelings.
Eva is single at heart; she never even considered embarking on her voyage with a romantic partner. “If you go with another person, it is the relationship that is put to the test,” she said. “If you go by yourself, it is the relationship with yourself that is put to the test, and that is where growth happens.”
By trade, David Crews is a broadcaster living in Austin. But for most of his 64 years, he studied and pondered some of the most profound questions about religion and reality. Visions, spirits and other unexplained phenomena have an enduring place in the history of human experience. But are they real?, he wondered. David, who was raised Christian, was a skeptic, but he wanted to see for himself. His research suggested that ayahuasca, a highly psychoactive plant medicine, might provide that portal to otherworldly experiences.
Off he went, this person who had become “agnostic, even atheistic in some ways,” who was “a virgin to mind-altering substances” and who had never even tried alcohol or tobacco, deep into the Amazonian jungle of Peru to test one of the most potent psychoactive substances. Over the course of three ceremonies, he experienced terror, calm and, finally, his first authentic religious experience.
David was previously married. “To do that kind of thing — traveling alone to another continent, entering into the jungle away from normal communications for a couple of weeks, and possibly endangering myself — is not something I could have practically done while still married,” he told me. “My wife was supportive of my path. But for us, it was a non-starter for me to actually go off on this adventure while still married.”
Back home from Peru, David did what previously seemed too scary. Instead of continuing to work for other people, he started his own broadcasting business.
Tricia Parker, 54, also dreamed of starting her own business. She wanted to have a private practice as a licensed mental-health counselor. That would mean forsaking the secure career she had for nearly 30 years, along with the good pay, health insurance, retirement benefits and generous vacation time that came with it.
The challenges were formidable. She would need to master counseling skills and accrue 3,000 hours of supervised work — most of it unpaid. She would also have to learn business practices such as billing, marketing and networking. She would need to apply for the necessary licenses and contracts with insurance companies and establish an office.
None of that was going to happen while she was married. During those years, she devoted her after-work hours to her role as caretaker and nurturer. That’s what she thought she should be doing, and her husband liked it that way.
Tricia, like David and other previously married people, told me that when they were married, they fantasized about their passions. And when they were single again, they acted on them.
After her divorce, it took Tricia two years of working evenings, weekends and holidays — on top of her regular job — to complete the requirements for the professional life she had wanted for so long. Now she is thriving in the private practice in Washington state that she built.
People who take the risk of walking away from stable jobs, or who venture into places such as the Amazon, face plenty of skepticism. Eva said that when she revealed her plan to travel the world on her own, “everyone thought I had some sort of breakdown.”
Many single people are not fazed by those reactions. A study of more than 200,000 adults from 31 European nations found that singles, more so than married people, value freedom. For married and unmarried people, the more they value freedom, the happier they are. That connection, though, is even stronger for people who are single — they get more happiness out of their love of being free.
Several single people told me that the most meaningful thing they got to do with their freedom was to be there for other people who needed them. Ellen Moore, a 57-year-old lifelong single woman from Holliston, Mass., didn’t really get to know her father growing up. She was the seventh of eight children, and he put in long hours at work. As an adult, though, they grew close, especially after her mother died. They went out to lunch, to movies, went shopping, and even collaborated on work projects.
Then her father suggested that they live together. Ellen had been living alone and enjoyed her own space. They found the perfect solution: two houses joined by a kitchen. During the last several years of their decade together, Ellen’s father’s health was deteriorating. His final wish was to die at home with family. With the help of other family members and caregivers, Ellen was able to grant him that.