What no one ever told you about people who are single | Bella DePaulo | TEDxUHasselt

What no one ever told you about people who are single | Bella DePaulo | TEDxUHasselt

October 9, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Queenie Lee
Reviewer: Panagiota Prokopi I’m 63, and I have been single my whole life. (Applause) Thank you! (Applause) I love you already. (Laughter) 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 legalised 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 realise 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 behaviour, 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 realise that this marriage issue
is a question for them. They’re talking to therapists.
They’re writing to advice columnists. 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.” (Laughter) 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 mesmerised. 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’ve resonated
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 realised
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 and 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 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. 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 neighbours, 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 are 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 savour 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! (Laughter) 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 mesmerised 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: 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 spades. 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 our lives. 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. (Applause)