For some reason, society seems to believe that having a significant other to exclusively call your own should be the goal of every young person’s social life.
The widespread popularity of Valentine’s Day, and the subsequent media bombardments we are forced to incur, are a testament to this phenomenon. Sure, friends are nice and fun, but fulfilling, breathless love is what everyone desires the most, right? Society is obsessed with the idea of passionate love and everyone is pushed to believe that being alone, much less wanting to be alone, is abnormal.
But let’s see what science has to say (Hint: Societal expectations are wrong, as always).
First, a lot of young people believe in the popular myth that everyone is in a relationship and being single puts you into the lonely minority. While it may seem that way, especially around Valentine’s Day, a myth is just myth.
In 2011, the United States Census Bureau found that a total of 102 million Americans 18 years and older were unmarried, making up 44.1 percent of all U.S. residents 18 years and older (“Unmarried and Single Americans Week,” 07.31.2012).
Not only that, 53 percent of them were women and 47 percent of them were men–a pretty even split.
But you may ask: How do you account for couples who are not married but dating, as well as people who want to be in a committed relationship but can’t find a partner?
Even though determining this specific demographic of people is difficult, we can make estimates based on what is available.
According to the same U.S. Census report mentioned earlier, 55 million households were maintained by unmarried men and women in 2011, comprising 46 percent of households nationwide.
In contrast, only 6.8 million households consisted of unmarried romantic partners.
Regarding those who desire romantic relationships but keep finding themselves without luck, we can use research on online dating. Given that we’re in the age of technology and social media, it should be a good indicator of how many people are actively seeking love, or some manifestation of it.
According to a 2015 study on online dating, about 40 million Americans use online dating websites, with young adults making up only 27 percent of the group (eHarmony, “10 Online Dating Statistics You Should Know,” 2017). While that may seem like a lot of people, don’t forget that 102 million people were reported to be single.
These two points should blow that myth out the water.
But of course, the most significant signs are the changes in cultural trends over time. In 1970, there were only 38 million single people in the U.S., making up just 28 percent of the population (New York Magazine, “The New Science of Single People,” 08.16.2016). In 1950, married couples represented 78 percent of American households (The Christian Science Monitor, “Singles Nation: Why So Many Americans are Unmarried,” 06.14.2015).
Not only that, the Pew Research Center recently found that only 30 percent of Millennials agreed that marriage is “one of the most important things” in life, which decreased from 47 percent of Generation X in 1997. Four in 10 Americans went even further and stated in 2010 that marriage was becoming “obsolete” (The Christian Science Monitor).
The sheer number of single people who want to stay single has grown to insane proportions. Just the number of single women is so large that social scientists are starting to see them as their own voting bloc (New York Magazine). This naturally leads us to the obvious question:
Why are so many people choosing to be single? What factors are contributing to these decisions?
There are numerous personal reasons, such as ambition and the desire for independence, but scientists have found that choosing to be alone has significant benefits on both your health and your mental well-being.
The person spearheading this field of research is Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In her presentation at the American Psychological Association’s 124th annual conference, DePaulo stated that single people have more fulfilling social lives and experience greater psychological growth than many married people, citing her investigation into 814 research studies as evidence (The Guardian, “Psychologists say single people are more fulfilled,” 08.10.2016).
Her research also shows that single people not only value meaningful work more than married people, but single people also have stronger connections with parents, siblings, friends, neighbors and coworkers (American Psychological Association, “Psychologist Reveals Science Behind A Fulfilling Single Life,” 08.05.2016).
“There are people who thrive on solitude and get important benefits from it like spirituality, creativity and rejuvenation. They’re not single because they have ‘baggage’ or ‘issues,’” DePaulo explained (Today, “Single ladies: You might be healthier and happier than married friends,” 08.05.2016).
There are plenty of other benefits as well. According to a Canadian study of more than 11,000 people, researchers found that lifelong single people reported better overall health than married people.
In an Australian study of more than 10,000 women in their 70s, researchers found that “lifelong single women without children had the fewest diagnoses of major illnesses, the healthiest body mass index and were least likely to smoke, compared to married women, or women who had been married in the past” (Today).
Being single also tends to improve your health.
A survey conducted in the United Kingdom found that, of the people who are not getting the proper amount of exercise, 73 percent of them were unmarried (Business Insider, “8 science-backed reasons being single can be better than being in a relationship,” 02.13.2017). Finally, a 2009 research study found that self-sufficient single people are less likely to experience negative emotions. For married people, the opposite tends to be true (APA).
Professor DePaulo cuts to the heart of the issue: “[Married people are bolstered by] the relentless celebration of marriage and coupling and weddings that I call matrimania. Single people, in contrast, are targets of singlism–the stereotyping, stigmatizing, marginalizing and discrimination against people who are single…It is time for a more accurate portrayal of single people and single life–one that recognizes the real strengths and resilience of people who are single, and what makes their lives so meaningful” (Independent, “Being single beats being married, psychologist claims,” 09.2016).
So to all the single people out there, raise your glass and celebrate your life of independence and self-sufficiency this Valentine’s Day. Science is very much on your side.
Focus on your hobbies, your friends and your ambitions, and realize that one is not the loneliest number, but the most rewarding number.