middle aged manI like to write about people who are single at heart – people who love their single lives and who feel that single is who they really are. I recognize, though, that there are plenty of single people who really do want to be coupled. I write less about them because they already get lots of attention. In fact, the prevailing myth is that, deep down inside, all singles are exactly like them. If singles say they love their single lives, the myth insists, they are just kidding themselves.

I was asked an interesting question recently: In your everyday life, is it harder to be single at heart or single and wanting to be coupled? The most obvious answer seems to be that singles who are pining for a partner are having a harder time – after all, they do not have what they want, whereas singles who are single at heart are living life on their own preferred terms.

In many ways, that probably is the correct answer. There is, though, something particularly challenging about being single at heart. Research shows that other people tend to discount single people’s claims to happiness, and that they actually feel anger toward single people who choose to be single.

I conducted the happiness research with my colleague Wendy Morris. We created many different profiles of people. Information in the profiles included the person’s age, sex, hometown, current residence, hobbies, whether the person has children, and how often the person sees friends, neighbors, and siblings. For each profile, we created two versions that were identical except that in one, the person was described as single and in the other, the person was described as married.

Participants in the study read the profiles (each participant would see only one version of each profile, either the single or the married version) and answered various questions about their impressions of the person they were reading about. For example, they were asked, “How genuinely happy do you think this person is?” and “How happy do you think this person would claim to be?”

When the person in the profile was described as single, that person was consistently judged to be less happy than when the person was described as married. Remember that every detail in the profile was identical except for marital status.

Perhaps even more interestingly, participants thought that the single people’s reports of their own happiness were likely to be more exaggerated than the married people’s reports. If, for example, a single person reported a happiness level of 7.2 on a 9-point scale (with higher numbers indicating greater happiness), the participants guessed that the single person’s actual happiness was just 5.9.  They thought married people exaggerated their happiness a bit, too, but not as much as single people.

In a study with Israeli participants, reported by Slonim, Gur-Yaish, and Katz at a conference last year, brief biographical sketches were again created. Again, pairs of sketches were identical except that in one, the person was described as single, and in the other, as coupled.

The authors added one more interesting twist: Half of the singles were described as having chosen to be single, whereas the other half were described as wanting to have a long-term coupled relationship.

The participants who rated the various biographical sketches were consistent in their reactions. They were much harsher toward the singles who chose to be single than those who wanted a romantic partner. They expressed more anger toward those who were single by choice. They rated them as lonelier, more miserable, less warm, and less sociable than the singles who wanted to be partnered.

Why the hostility toward people who choose to be single? The authors did not test explanations, but they speculate that singles who like their single lives are challenging social norms. They are busting the myths that other people are invested in – for example, the myth that what single people want more than anything else is to become unsingle, and that you can only be truly happy if you are coupled.

Singles who say they want to escape single life are easier to understand. They do not threaten the dominant ways of thinking about things. They keep prevailing value systems intact. For that, they are rewarded with kinder and more sympathetic reactions from other people.

Middle aged man photo available from Shutterstock.