For years, single people have been painted as failures. Hollywood has managed to make three Bridget Jones films on that loose premise alone. But as it turns out, most research on single people is carried out through the lens of marriage, which isn't exactly the best way to draw accurate conclusions on single life. Basically, being forever alone may not be so awful after all.
Frustrated by the gaps in research on how fulfilling life without a partner can be, psychologist and author of Singled Out, Dr Bella DePaulo, decided to investigate singledom about a decade ago. Her latest work suggests embracing solitude can leave us open to more psychological growth and development than married people, who are actually more likely to become insular and withdrawn than their single counterparts.
I tracked down Dr DePaulo, who's also a researcher and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to speak about society's obsession with marriage, and what we should be doing to stop thinking about loneliness as something without potential benefits.
VICE: Why are we so afraid of being lonely?
Dr Bella DePaulo: The idea that everyone wants to get married seems to be an organising concept of society. If people get married they think they'll be happier, healthier, live longer. So, if you get married you feel like you've done the right thing, and that just by finding this one person all the pieces of your life have fallen into place. And if you buy into this way of thinking, seeing single people is threatening, especially if you see people enjoying single life. This becomes a direct threat – or challenge – to your own assumption that getting married is the only path to real happiness.
That's weird, because so often being single seems to invite pity.
We're afraid of being single because single life is stereotyped and stigmatised in society; people think that if you're single, there must be something wrong with you, and no one wants to feel that way about themselves. Because there isn't a positive, respectful space for single people, we stay in bad relationships longer. The irony is, less discrimination against single people would also be good for people who want to be coupled, because they could approach that desire from a position of strength – something they want, rather than running to coupling or staying in a bad relationship because they're afraid of being single.
What are the benefits of solitude?
There's so much research on loneliness – psychologists are really obsessed with it, and while loneliness can be painful and have negative effects, we miss out on the benefits of solitude when we focus only on the perils of loneliness. Single people – especially those who love living their single lives – really embrace their time alone. When they think about spending time alone, they savour the thought rather than worrying they might be lonely. And the research that's starting to be done on solitude is very encouraging – it suggests it's really good for creativity, restoration, personal growth, spirituality, and for relaxation.
What sorts of characteristics do you come across in people who embrace their single life?
Single people tend to experience more personal growth and contribute to society in meaningful ways. One of the stereotypes of single people is that they lead lives of unfettered pleasure-seeking, but in fact they do a lot of volunteering and a lot of the important work of caring.
People think that if you're single, there must be something wrong with you – and no one wants to feel that way about themselves
Another thing that distinguishes people who embrace the single life is that they're not so focused on The One being their everything. There's research showing that when people get married, they become more insular even if they don't have kids, because it's part of our marital mentality – that couples are supposed to be this tight unit who look mostly to each other. On the other hand, the people who are single are more connected to their friends, siblings, parents, neighbours and co-workers.
Is there any way to stop this, or are married people doomed to disappear into themselves?
They just have to get over this idea that they're one inseparable unit, and feel more free to attend to the people and passions that are important to them.
What can people do to stop fears of loneliness obscuring the benefits of solitude?
Recognise the good things about spending time alone! If you aren't familiar with it, embrace it and see if you can find positivity in solitude, and start viewing time alone as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Why is research on single people so lacking?
We haven't caught up with the ways things are changing; in the United States, the proportion of people 25 and older who'd never married by 2012 had more than doubled since 1960. People spend more years of their adult lives unmarried, so it makes no sense at all to continue focusing almost exclusively on married people. What really shocked me when I first started studying all this more than a decade ago was that all the claims of huge benefits – health, long life, happiness – are either grossly exaggerated, or plain wrong.
What's the next step for this research and your work?
We really need to take the lives of single people seriously, and to try and understand what makes their lives meaningful rather than trying to view single people through the lens of marriage. In terms of my own work, I want to learn more about people who are single at heart; the people for whom living single is the way they live their best, most authentic, most fulfilled and meaningful life. That means living your life fully, pursuing the passions that you care about most, and deciding for yourself who the important people in your life are, rather than saying it's all going to be about one person. It's about embracing your solitude if that's important to you, but it's really about creating your own script for your own life.
Thanks, Dr DePaulo.
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