Breaking Stereotypes: What Makes Singles Happy
Picture yourself basking in the warmth of a sunny afternoon, surrounded by good friends and loving family, reveling in the joys of singlehood. The people in your life periodically pressure you to find a soulmate, but you find yourself wondering, "Do I really need a romantic partner to be happy?" If you like being single and don't want to put a ring on it, worry not. Emerging research of ours suggests single life can be just as fulfilling as coupled life.
The proportion of single people is on the rise. As of 2019, 38% of adults in the U.S. were unpartnered, up from 29% in 1990. Yet single people still face numerous forms of stigma and discrimination, often referred to as "singlism." For example, married people are often described as mature, stable, kind, and happy, while unmarried people are described as immature, insecure, self-centered, and unhappy. Some research supports these notions, suggesting that coupled people are happier than single people on average. But averages are not individuals. Such studies may not show the full picture.
Singles Differ from Each Other in Myriad Ways
We collected survey data from 4,835 single adults (ages 18-65) who were not currently in a romantic relationship of any kind. Using predictors of well-being (such as friendship satisfaction and self-esteem), we identified 10 distinct groups of single people, then ordered those groups from most to least happy. By doing this, we were able to get a diverse and nuanced picture of single people's lives. This approach yielded some fascinating new findings.
First, 14% of single adults were extremely happy. In fact, they were just as happy as the happiest coupled adults reported in previous studies. Another 40% of singles were moderately happy, 36% were somewhat unhappy, and only 10% were extremely unhappy. Contrary to stereotypes about miserable single people, the majority of singles (54%) were happy and satisfied with their lives. Thus, singles can experience happiness on par with their coupled counterparts, thereby challenging the misguided stigmas often associated with singlehood.
Second, focusing on groups allowed us to better understand what makes singles happy. The happiest singles enjoyed strong social relationships with their friends and family, high self-esteem, and favorable personality traits. Specifically, the happiest singles exhibited high extraversion (a trait defined by having an outgoing and sociable nature) and low neuroticism (a tendency towards negative emotional instability). In contrast, the least happy singles had poor relationships with friends and family, low self-esteem, low extraversion, and high neuroticism.
Between these two extremes, we discovered intriguing variations among moderately happy singles. They often balanced negative aspects with positive ones. Although singles with great friends and family were the happiest, singles did not necessarily need both to be happy. One happy group had strong friendships but poor family relationships, while another happy group showed the reverse pattern. Yet another happy group of singles had high neuroticism but offset this difficulty with high extraversion. In other words, there are multiple ways for single people to be happy. You cannot distill all single people down to just one general stereotype. There are various types of single people that are uniquely different from each other.
So, what are the key takeaways from our research? Staying single doesn't doom you to a lifetime of despair. On the contrary, many single people are just as happy as their coupled peers. Single people also have many routes available to them to live their own version of the good life. Some singles are blessed with low neuroticism, while others have high self-esteem. Some singles find solace in family, while others treasure their friendships.
Historically, an average-based happiness gap has existed between couples and singles, but that gap may be narrowing as singlehood gains greater acceptance and prominence. Perhaps it was merely a product of the "singlist" social stigma to begin with. It's time to embrace the vibrant tapestry of singlehood and recognize that happiness doesn't hinge on romantic partnerships. To all the single folks out there, we invite you to embark on your own unique journey, cherish the diverse ways that you find happiness, and celebrate the rich, fulfilling life that awaits you as a solo adventurer.
For Further Reading
Walsh, L. C., Gonzales, A., Shen, L., Rodriguez, A., & Kaufman, V. A. (2022). Expanding relationship science to unpartnered singles: What predicts life satisfaction? Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 904848. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.904848
Lisa Walsh is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her work focuses broadly on the who, what, where, when, why, and how of happiness.
Victor Kaufman is a Research Scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work explores the associations among close relationships (e.g., with friends, family, romantic partners) and well-being.