Then I decided not just to practice single life but to study it. I was stunned by what I found. Many studies, methodologically, couldn’t support the kinds of claims that were heralded in the media. The better studies, which follow the same people over time as they stay single or marry, often show that, at best, people who get married enjoy a brief honeymoon effect. For example, they might experience an increase in happiness around the time of the wedding, but then they go back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single.
In one study, people who had been married or cohabiting for more than three years (so, beyond the honeymoon period) were no happier or healthier than the people who stayed single. They were also no less likely to be depressed and no more likely to have high self-esteem. There was one way the people who married differed from singles, both in the early years of marriage and the later ones – they had less contact with their parents and spent less time with their friends.
Other research, too, suggests that single people are the social glue holding us all together. Single people have more friends. They are more connected to neighbors, friends, siblings and parents. When it comes to the sick, disabled, or elderly, single people do more to provide long-term help than married people do — even those who are married without kids.
Contrary to stereotypes, single people seem to be less materialistic than married people. They are more likely to value meaningful work. Wounded warriors who have always been single are more resilient than those who are married. Single people also exercise more than married people do. People who marry typically get fatter.
I’m not saying that everyone should live single. For many other people, the best versions of themselves emerge when they are married. Yet for me and others like me, we live our best lives when single.
Take the trait of self-sufficiency, preferring to do things on your own. Among people 40 and older who have always been single, the more self-sufficient they are, the less likely they are to have negative feelings. Among those who are married, though, the more self-sufficient they are, the more likely they are to experience negative emotions.
Single life just feels right to me. I don’t fear loneliness; instead I savor the solitude of my life. Every day, when I wake up in a place of my own with no one else there, I can hardly believe my great fortune. I can pursue the work I care about passionately. I can see friends or spend days at a time on my own, walking the spectacular bluffs near my home, browsing the farmers markets and preparing fresh and flavorful meals from their offerings.
I like companionship, but not as an obligatory plus-one. Back when I tried out romantic relationships, my overwhelming sentiment when they ended was not sadness but relief. When I decided to move from one coast to the other and leave behind my tenured professorship, I was happy not to ask someone else to sign on with me to that big change and its financial risk.
Others react to our choice with anger. In a study in which Israeli adults evaluated brief biographical sketches of single people who said that they either had or had not chosen to be single, those who wanted to be single were viewed as lonely and miserable. Compared to the involuntary singles, they were more often seen as lacking in warmth and sociability. They elicited more anger from the evaluators. (Though they were also more often seen as independent and self-assured.)
Happy single people are a threat to a cherished worldview promising that, if you get married and stay that way, all of your dreams will come true. You will be happier and healthier, and probably morally superior, too. From that perspective, living single is sad.
But it isn’t. And neither is getting married. What is truly sad is living the life you think you should live, rather than the one that suits you best.