Forget everything you think you know about being single—starting with the assumption that it means ready to mingle.
More people than ever before are living solo: Nearly 40% of adults in the U.S. are unpartnered, up from 29% in 1990, according to the Pew Research Center. And about half aren’t interested in dating or a relationship.
Take Bella DePaulo, a 69-year-old in Santa Barbara, Calif., who has been single her entire life. For years, she thought she would eventually develop a desire to marry or enter a long-term relationship—but she’s since realized that single life is her best life. “I had never heard of such a thing as being happily single and wanting to stay single,” says DePaulo, a social psychologist who’s the author of books including Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone. “Once I realized that single was who I really was, and that was never going to change, it was wonderful.” She describes her solo life as authentic, fulfilling, meaningful, and psychologically rich.
Researchers are only beginning to fully understand all the dimensions of singlehood—including who it appeals to and why, its challenges and joys, and how it affects health and happiness. For years, singles were hardly studied. Why? In part, probably because “science isn’t independent of society’s values and norms,” says Geoff MacDonald, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who researches relationships and singlehood. “We’ve been going along with society’s story about single people, and there have been structural incentives to kind of make single people the punching bag.”
But that’s beginning to change. The marriage rate has been decreasing for decades, and those who do get married often wait until later in life. Marriage is no longer a necessity for having a family or achieving financial comfort; it’s only one path among many that can lead to joy.
Overall, MacDonald says, the available evidence indicates that people in romantic relationships enjoy greater well-being than singles: They tend to be happier and report higher levels of life satisfaction. However, marriage doesn’t necessarily make you happy; there’s evidence that, more likely, happier people choose to get married. And there are lots of variables at play. For instance, some people who are single might be exceptionally happy, while others in relationships are miserable. (Research has found that people in unhappy marriages have equal or worse health outcomes compared to those who were never married.)
Another important caveat: The singles who have the hardest time with their relationship status tend to be divorced people. Traditionally, research hasn’t accounted for the fact that about 39% of marriages end in divorce. “There’s evidence suggesting that when people get divorced, it can have lasting negative effects,” MacDonald says. Widowhood is also associated with poor mental health, and can lead to grief, depressive symptoms, and loneliness.
As the new science of singlehood crystallizes, here are some of the most intriguing insights that researchers have uncovered.
People prefer being single for many reasons.
Long-term singles tend to have certain values in common, says Elyakim Kislev, a faculty member at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of books including Happy Singlehood. These are people who “cherish freedom, independence, and even creativity and nonconformity more than others,” he says.
Research backs that up. In one study published in 2022, hundreds of men and women were surveyed about what makes single life attractive, and they rated the top benefits as having more time for themselves, being able to focus on their goals, and not having anyone else dictate their actions.
Another study, co-authored by MacDonald, zeroed in on what unpartnered people prioritize the most—and the results suggest they care about being mentally and physically healthy and fostering strong family relationships. Sex and dating were among participants’ least important priorities. Additional research suggests certain traits might hardwire people to be single. Among them: sociosexuality (or the willingness to have sex outside a committed relationship) and high career focus, especially among young women.
“Some people just don’t want to organize their lives around a romantic partner,” says DePaulo, the happily single social psychologist. “They want to take advantage of the freedom to curate lives of their own.”
Wanting a relationship when you’re not in one is correlated with lower life satisfaction.
Some people believe a romantic relationship is essential for their happiness and well-being, while others find fulfillment and satisfaction without a partner. Those in the latter group tend to fare better. “Wanting a relationship more only emphasizes the gap between one’s reality and one’s desire,” Kislev says. People who focus on what they don’t have “often find themselves miserable, which only feeds into more failed dates in a vicious circle.” His research indicates that the more someone wants a relationship, the less satisfied they’ll be with their life.
What’s a single longing for love to do? Kislev says it’s key to find ways to enjoy your current relationship status. Even if you eventually want to couple up—based on your own desires, not those of, say, your parents—take stock of the benefits of your singleness. Regularly engaging in hobbies and self-care activities can boost self-esteem and overall life satisfaction, he says. So can a sense of purpose, achieved perhaps by volunteering or pursuing a passion.
Being alone doesn’t mean being lonely.
People who are coupled up often turn inwards to their partners and families—researchers call it “the greedy marriage,” Kislev says. As a result, “coupled people, especially men, may lose their friends over time and find themselves lonely later in life.”
Singles, on the other hand, typically have stronger social ties, which researchers consistently name as the bedrock of happiness. Research suggests that those without a partner are more likely to support and visit their parents and siblings than people who are currently or previously married, and they usually have more friends. Singles are also more likely to socialize with those friends and to give and receive help from them.
Not all single people live alone, but social scientists have found that those who do tend to be actively involved in the lives of their cities and neighborhoods. “They aren’t just staying home, the way people who live with others often do,” DePaulo says. “They walk out the door and meet other people.” One study found that people who lived with others—not those who lived alone—actually had the highest levels of loneliness.
Kislev has studied the connection between loneliness and marital status in old age, and his findings indicate that married seniors are the least lonely group, followed by those who never married. Both groups were less lonely than people who were widowed, divorced, or separated. The findings indicate that “long-term singles, in particular, develop strong social ties, self-sufficiency, and a sense of purpose over their lifetime,” he says.
People who are satisfied with their sex life are happier to be single.
Ask a married person to describe singles’ sex lives, and they might imagine something more exciting than reality. There’s an assumption that those who aren’t in a relationship have “amazing sexual opportunities for variety and exploration,” MacDonald says. “But our data suggest quite clearly that people have more sex in romantic relationships than they do if they’re single.” That makes sense, he adds, considering the convenience factor.
Still, MacDonald’s research indicates that the extent to which single people are happy with their sex lives predicts their satisfaction with their relationship status. Those with higher sexual satisfaction tend to report less desire to marry and hold stronger beliefs that singletons can be happy, he says.
People become more satisfied with being single around age 40.
There’s a common misconception that older singles are the least happy with their relationship status. But actually, MacDonald’s research suggests that starting around age 40, singletons become more satisfied with their solo lives.
There are likely a couple reasons for this, he says. For one thing, by the time they’ve reached midlife, many people have “filtered into the stream that they’re looking for,” he says. “If you’re somebody who wants a romantic relationship, oftentimes you’ve gotten there, and so unhappy singles have kind of been selected out of the single group.”
Plus, MacDonald adds, there’s evidence that overall well-being tends to increase after midlife, so the connection might not be unique to singlehood.
Social stigma continues—and can be damaging.
Even now, as more people choose solo lives, single-shaming persists. A study published in 2020 found that being prejudiced against singles is considered more acceptable than prejudice toward certain nationalities or sexual orientation groups—and it might manifest, for example, as a landlord disclosing that they’d rather rent an apartment to a married couple than a single person. “Singlism,” as it’s sometimes called, could also mean excluding singles from social events, pressuring them to “settle down,” or making assumptions that certain shortcomings must be keeping them from finding a match.
Kislev points to research in which undergraduate students were asked to list characteristics they associated with married and single individuals. Married people were referred to as mature, happy, kind, honest, and loving. Singles, on the other hand, were perceived as immature, insecure, self-centered, unhappy, lonely, and even ugly. Many people, he says, continue to see singlehood as a transitory stage on the way to a romantic relationship—and as “a second-best option or a failure to find a partner.”
In reality, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of “happily ever after,” DePaulo says, and it’s possible to reach that vaunted place alone. If you’re single but worried about what others think of you, “live your single life fully, joyfully, and unapologetically,” she advises. “People who try to stigmatize you are the ones who should be embarrassed—not you.”