I turned 70 this year, and I am so very grateful that I have gotten to do what many people consider unfathomable — I have stayed single my entire life. And as I grow older, my single life just keeps getting better and better.
Growing up, I never knew there was such a thing as choosing to stay happily single. I did know what people believed: that no one really wants to be single, or at least not for long; if they think they do, they are just fooling themselves. And if they really do stay single, they are going to grow increasingly sad and lonely as they age.
Now I know better. I don’t just live single; I am also a scholar of single life. As a social scientist, I’ve spent decades studying single people, scrutinizing the research of others, and rewriting what it can mean to be single. I’ve found that people I call “single at heart” — I’m one of them — are powerfully drawn to single life. It is, to us, the most deeply fulfilling way to live.
I learned about this joyful state of singlehood from dozens of people who identify as single at heart and shared their life stories with me in interviews, hundreds who told me about their single lives more informally, and thousands who completed an online survey.
I found that we who are single at heart are flourishing because we are single, not despite it. Single people can thrive even if they wish they were coupled, but the single people who embrace their single lives, who do not want to organize their lives around a romantic partner, have some unrecognized strengths and great advantages. Among the keys to our fulfillment are our freedom, our love of solitude, and our openhearted approach to friends, family, intimacy and love.
When I asked the people who shared their life stories with me what they liked about being single, every one of them mentioned freedom. To the single at heart, freedom is a door that opens to the life we want to live, an authentic life that reflects our interests and values and who we really are. We use our freedom to learn, to grow and to create a psychologically rich life of new experiences and fresh perspectives.
We like being the deciders, whether that means having control over our money and how we spend it, fashioning homes that are our sanctuaries, creating our own holiday traditions, or having complete say over when we sleep, what we eat, what shows we stream, and whether the toilet seat is up or down.
People who are single at heart are more likely than those who aren’t to choose meaningful work over lucrative work if they can’t have both. I’ve used my freedom to study and write about people who are single from a research-based perspective that acknowledges their strengths, rather than just characterizing them as a pile of deficiencies.
I work nearly every day, even now when I am supposedly retired. I know what others think of single people like me who love our work: We are married to our jobs, and not in a good way; our work won’t love us back. But I cherish my life of the mind. And although I do much of my work in solitude, that work has also sown the seeds of community.
I hear from single people who otherwise would have been strangers and I meet people who would never have been a part of my life, because of my work. On Facebook I started a Community of Single People, where we celebrate our single lives and discuss just about every aspect of being single, except the ones that others expect single people to be obsessed with — dating and trying to unsingle ourselves.
People who lead traditional coupled lives can enjoy many of the same freedoms that single people do, but freedom does not seem to have the same central place in their lives as it does for single people. In a study of more than 200,000 people from over 30 European nations, both married and unmarried adults said that individualistic values such as freedom, creativity and trying new things were important to them. But single people cared about those values even more than married people did, and they got more happiness out of their embrace of those values.
I have had the great good fortune to live alone my entire adult life. I spend a lot of time alone, and I am rarely bored. As I putter around the house, preparing meals from just-picked produce from the farmers market, or when I sprawl on the couch to read or watch the successors to “Succession,” my alone time is relaxing. I also do my best work when I am completely alone and no other person is stealing a sliver of my attention.
Even during the worst of times, solitude suits me. When my father died suddenly and unexpectedly, my mother, who was hundreds of miles away, called one of my friends so someone could be with me after I heard the news. But that’s not what I wanted. I was shocked and devastated, and I just wanted to be alone. It wasn’t until later that I would find the company of friends and relatives comforting.
I thought that other people who are single at heart would also be likely to value solitude, but I was surprised when every last one of the people who shared their life stories with me said that it was important to have time to themselves. They savored their solitude. It is a different story than the one that is so popular in the media. In that version, people who live alone, or who spend a lot of time alone, are isolated and lonely.
As scholars turn their attention to the psychology of spending time alone, they are finding that for those who choose it and value it, it can be good for creativity, spirituality and reflection. In fact, people who do not get as much time to themselves as they want are as stressed, sad and dissatisfied as people who get more alone time than they want.
For people who are single at heart, our love of solitude is a superpower. Our comfort with being alone sustained us through the COVID-19 pandemic, and it serves us well as we head into later life. Because we appreciate the time we have to ourselves, we are rarely lonely.
We don’t just love our solitude, though; most of us also value companionship and enjoy socializing. Single people, and not just the single at heart, are on average more connected to more people. Compared with married people, we socialize with friends and neighbors more often and stay in touch with our parents more reliably. We exchange more moral, emotional and practical support with our friends, siblings, parents, co-workers and neighbors.
While people who are romantically coupled, or want to be, are typically focused on The One, single people more often tend to The Ones. We who are single at heart appreciate getting to include in our lives as many or as few people as we like, free from the concern that romantic partners might want more of that time and attention for themselves.
When I was teaching at the University of Virginia, a newly hired colleague invited me to her place for dinner. She hinted that she would invite a guy and maybe I’d be interested in him. I wished she wouldn’t. I wanted to get to know her. I hoped we would become friends.
Being single at heart means that we do not do what some people who become coupled do — demote our friends in order to prioritize a romantic partner. It means that when we are with our friends, we are likely to be truly present, not looking past them for the romantic prospect who may be across the room or thinking about the spouse we already have.
We who are single at heart also have an expansive and inclusive approach toward intimacy and love. We may well love the people who are typically considered family, such as our parents, siblings and children (if we have them), but we also cherish the people who count as family to us, such as our dear friends and confidants. We know that love is a great, big emotion that encompasses far more than just romantic love.
One of the most enduring myths about single people is that what they want, more than anything else, is to escape their single lives and become romantically coupled. When my colleague Wendy Morris and I asked undergraduates how they thought they would feel if they got married, they predicted that they would be about as happy as they could possibly be; in contrast, they thought that if they stayed single, they would be miserable. In other research, we found that older single people were believed to be even more dissatisfied with their lives than younger single people.
Stick a fork in those myths — they are done. In a study of more than 3,000 adults who did not have a romantic partner, researchers found that at every age, from 20 through 96, the single people’s ratings of their satisfaction with their single lives were decidedly on the satisfied end of the scale.
Sure, there were single people who were dissatisfied with their single lives, but they were the exceptions. What’s more, starting at age 40 and continuing for decades to come, the single people grew more and more satisfied with their single lives.
I could have been a lot less fortunate than I am. I could be living at a time or in a place where the prospects for staying single for life would have been much more daunting. Maybe it would have been nearly impossible for me to support myself financially without a spouse. Maybe attitudes toward single people would have been even more disparaging than they are now.
That would have been a profound loss. For people like me who are single at heart, the risk is not what we’ll miss if we do not organize our lives around a romantic partner, but what we’ll miss if we do. We would miss the opportunity to live our most meaningful, fulfilling and psychologically rich lives by living someone else’s version of a good life instead of our own. We would not get to be who we really are.
Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard University) has always been single and always will be. The Atlantic calls her “America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience.” She is the author of ”Single at Heart: The Power, Freedom, and Heart-Filling Joy of Single Life.” Her TEDx talk, “What No One Ever Told You About People Who Are Single,” has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. You can learn more about her at her website, www.BellaDePaulo.com.