Now let me show you how happy people really are when they are single and then when they get married. Here are the average happiness ratings of thousands of single people, starting years before any of them ever get married. They’re very happy.
Now here they are getting married and they do get a little happier. Not that enormous increase that the college students predicted but a small increase.
Then look what happens. Year after year their happiness slips till they end up as happy as they were when they were single. So getting married didn’t make people happy; they just got a little thrill around the time of the wedding.
But wait, there’s something I didn’t tell you; I’m holding back here. That increase in happiness that people get when they first get married, only the people who get married and stay married experience that. What about the people who get married and then get divorced? When they get married, they get less happy and then there they are going down, down, down until they end up less happy than they were when they were single.
So if you want to say that getting married increases people’s happiness even for just a little while, you have to look only at the people who are currently married. There’s something really important about that. Whenever you hear the claim that married people are doing better than single people and you will hear that over and over again, beware they are telling you look over there at those married people and don’t look over there, nothing to see there. But you should look over there, because that’s where you’ll see all the people who got married hated it and refused to stay married. That’s a lot of people.
Now today lots of people have serious romantic relationships without ever getting married. So maybe what matters isn’t whether you’re married or not, but how much of that good stuff are you getting the romantic relationship has to offer? How much caring are you getting? How much commitment?
Researchers studying loneliness and depression and stress took that approach. They proposed a hierarchy. So they said married people, they get the most caring and commitment. So they should do better than everyone else.
In second place people who are cohabiting, they get a lot of caring but you know, maybe not at the same amount of commitment that married people get.
In third place, people who are single and dating, and at the very bottom those single people that don’t even have a romantic partner, not even a date, this — the researchers were sure that they were going to have the very worst psychological health.
But when they looked at the results for the women, what they found was nothing. The women higher on the hierarchy were not any less lonely. They were not any less depressed, and they weren’t any less stressed than the other women.
And the findings for the men weren’t that much better. How is this even possible? Single people aren’t getting any caring and commitment from a spouse. Their lives aren’t celebrated the way married people’s lives are. They aren’t getting any of those legal benefits and protections.
And single people in social science studies aren’t just people like me who love living single. They also include the single people who hate being single. So everything is stacked against the single people.
Yet there they are, with their high levels of happiness and their low levels of loneliness and depression and stress. How can we understand that? I think the stories we are getting told over and over again by everyone from five-year-olds to Supreme Court justices are distracting us from other more revealing stories, the stories no one has ever told us about people who are single.
I’ll tell you three of them. The first story we are told repeatedly is this: married people have someone. They have the one, single people have no one. But when psychologists actually started studying the real lives of single people, they found something entirely different. It’s the single people who have more friends; it’s the single people who are doing more than married people to stay in touch with their siblings. It’s the single people who are more often tending to their parents, exchanging help with their neighbors, contributing to the life of their towns and cities.
In contrast, when couples move in together, or when they get married, they tend to be more insular. And they tend to do that even if they don’t have kids. So they can’t blame it on the kids.
So the story we’re told is that married people have the one: the untold more revealing story is that single people have the ones.
The second story we are told is: get married and you will never be lonely again. The researchers who proposed the hierarchy were sure that married people were going to be the least lonely; they weren’t. But you know who really was protected from loneliness? The people who had friends and family members they could open up to and rely on if they had a problem. That’s what mattered, not whether they had a spouse or romantic partner.
In the stories we are told people who live alone are isolated and lonely. But in fact, as long as the people living alone have about the same income as people living with others, they aren’t actually on the average less lonely.
In the stories we are told people who are home alone are crying in their beer, distraught that they’re not with that special someone. But in fact, some people who live alone are like Joan, the woman who told her therapist that her ideal husband would be someone who’s never home.