Life & Style

Bella DePaulo: What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single at TEDxUHasselt (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of social psychologist Bella DePaulo’s TEDx Talk presentation: What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single at TEDxUHasselt conference. She is the author of the book Singled Out.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: What no one ever told you about people who are single by Bella DePaulo at TEDxUHasselt conference


I’m 63, and I have been single my whole life. Thank you! I love you already.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I knew I was supposed to get married, and I knew I was supposed to want to be married. Even now I keep getting reminded.

So in the United States, a month ago, these wedding planners made national news they spent months fussing over the flowers and the music and the invitations and every imaginable detail. On the day of the wedding they were so excited. Who were these wedding planners? They were a class of five-year olds and the bride and groom were ducks. By putting on a wedding the five year olds became our storytellers and they were telling the same stories we all grew up hearing: get married and you will live happily ever after and you will never be lonely again.

As children, we hear those stories in fairy tales. As grown-ups we keep hearing them in all the novels and movies and TV shows that build up to a wedding. The Supreme Court of the United States is telling those same stories in the landmark ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out and find no one there”.

But here’s the thing. That was never my story. I never wanted to get married. Everything about my life added up to a different story, that living single was my happily ever after. But for the longest time I never did add it up, I never heard of such a thing as living single and loving it.

And it turns out the same thing is still true of many people even today. They don’t realize that embracing single life is a thing and so they tell themselves, “Sure, I’m looking for the one. That’s what I want”, but then when you look at their actual behavior, you see that doing what it would take to find that person seems to rank somewhere between deleting ancient emails from their inbox and cleaning out their sock drawer.

Now other people do realize that this marriage issue is a question for them. They’re talking to therapists. They’re writing to advice columnist. Joan DelFattore told the story of a conversation she had with her therapist. Her therapist said, “Joan, if you do decide to get married, what kind of man would you look for?”

And Joan said, “Someone with a challenging job, has lots of outside interests, does volunteer work, play sports, like that.”


And her therapist said, “Oh, so you want someone well-rounded and intellectually stimulating.”

And Joan said, “No, I’d want someone who’s never home.”

Another example is a letter that Kaye wrote to an advice columnist. Kaye said, “She was in a long-term relationship with a ‘wonderful’ amazing man. When he kisses me, I still get goosebumps. When he walks into the door, I’m mesmerized. So why is it that sometimes I just feel like I should be alone?” She offers the beginnings of an answer to her own question by saying: I’ve always been kind of a free spirit, an independent kind of person. And she signs her letter: “Is love enough?”

Positive affirming stories about single life would have resonated with Joan and Kaye just like they would resonate it with me all those years ago. But those stories have never been part of our lives the way fairy tales have.

I’ve made it my life’s work to find the true stories of single life, stories no one is ever telling us. At first, though, I wasn’t so sure I was going to like what I found.


I had two main worries. The first one was that as much as I loved my single life, I didn’t love everything about it. It hurt when my friends got married and went out to dinner with other couples. And I got demoted to lunch.

At work, I thought it was unfair when I got asked to take the teaching times that nobody else wanted, because I was single. Later, I realized that’s just the small stuff and that the special status of married people is far more sweeping. In the United States, for example, there are more than a thousand laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married.

My second worry was that science was against me. Before I ever read any of the scientific journals for myself to see what they really did say, before I did any of my own studies, I believed what I was hearing in the media. I thought science had already shown what the fairytales promised: get married and you will live happily ever after. Not like those single people.

That’s what college students think too. Asked to predict how happy they would be if they stayed single year after year, this is what they said. They think they’d be miserable.

Now look what they said when asked how happy they would be if they got married. They think they would be about as happy as they could possibly be. What you see there is the fairy tale version of marriage in single life.


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.

Many single people savor solitude; they don’t dread it. Remember that Supreme Court justice who said marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out and find no one there. Well, my fear is that I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and find that someone else is there, hogging the blankets, snoring and farting, all of that adds up to a story very different from get married and you will never be lonely again.


The third story we are told is all you need is love; love is all you need. When Kaye asked the advice columnist, is love enough, she already had romantic love. She was mesmerized by her partner. Other single people value other kinds of love, like the love of close friends or family or spiritual figures, just as people so often have done over the course of history. But a happy life, a good life is not just about love, not even the most expansive kinds.

We humans also crave autonomy and mastery and purpose and meaning. Single people have that autonomy. They are in charge of their own lives. Single people develop mastery, you know that thing married people do where they split up all the tasks, so you deal with the car and the money, I’ll handle the meals and the relatives.

Well, single people figure out how to do all of it. Single people also have purpose and meaning. They can pursue what matters most to them and often they do. For example, people who stay single value meaningful work more than married people do.

Lifelong single people also experience more personal growth. They are more likely than married people to say that their lives have been a continuous process of learning, change, and growth.

So that third story we are told is all you need is love. The untold more revealing story is that we also yearn for autonomy, mastery, purpose and meaning. And single people have those things in space.

The untold stories of single life have never been more relevant than they are now. More people than ever before in many nations around the world are single. Living single is the norm even for people who get married. Americans, for example, spend more years of their adult life not married than married. So that means single life really is the better part of hard life.

For way too long, we single people have been told that the only way we can be truly happy is to get married. Now we know that’s just not so. And everyone can benefit from that.

So married people, now that you know the secrets of a successful single life, feel free to steal them and add new shades of bliss to your lives. And single people, you know what to do: go out and live your single lives fully, joyfully, and unapologetically.

Thank you.


By Pangambam S

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