Do you like your single life? Settle into it. Research suggests that it can be rewarding in ways you rarely hear about.

There’s a lot of angst these days about the growing numbers of people living single, and especially about young adults who routinely reach the age of 30 without ever having married. By one respectable estimate, one out of every four of today’s young adults will reach 50 as a lifelong single person. Many of their parents are freaking out. Some of the young adults who want to marry are also on edge.

My hope for all of us is that we get to pursue the life paths we want, whatever they may be. But I think we have an overly anxious and pessimistic view of lifelong singlehood, and I say that based on data. There is not nearly as much research as there should be on single life, and not all of it is as up-to-date as I would like, but there are some telling findings.

For example, in an analysis of data from the National Survey of Families and Households, more than 1,000 people who had always been single were compared to more than 3,000 people of comparable ages who had been continuously married. How did their lives change over the course of a five-year period?

There were two ways in which the lives of the people who stayed single improved over time, compared to those who stayed married.

First, they experienced more personal growth. They were more likely to agree with the statements:

“For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth.”

“I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world.”

They were more likely to disagree with the statement:

“I gave up trying to make big improvements or changes in my life a long time ago.” (People who stayed married were more likely to agree with that statement, and to agree with it more over time.)

Second, people who stayed single, compared to those who stayed married, also reported increases in autonomy and self-determination. They were more likely to agree with the statements:

“I judge myself by what I think is important, not by the values of what others think is important.”

“I have confidence in my opinions, even if they are different from the way most other people think.”

They were more likely to disagree with the statement:

“I tend to be influenced by people with strong opinions.” (People who stayed married were more likely to agree with that statement, and to agree with it more over time.)

To have strong internal standards and to continue to experience personal growth over the course of your adult years strike me as important dimensions of a meaningful life. They are experiences that increase over time if you stay single, more so than if you stay married.

This study does not show that staying single causes people to experience more autonomy or personal growth. It only establishes a link between the two. And not all of the findings favored the people who stayed single. For example, single people were more likely to agree that “maintaining close relationships has been difficult and frustrating for me.” In some ways, there were no significant differences at all between those who stayed single and those who stayed married. For example, they did not differ in self-esteem, finding purpose in life, or in personal mastery (e.g., “I have always felt pretty sure my life would work out the way I wanted it to.”)

Studies that compare currently married people to people who are single always give the married people an advantage. The married people chose to get married and stay married – those who had bad experiences and got divorced are not included in the group of parried people. The people who stayed single, on the other hand, includes some who chose to live single, and others who may have preferred to be married. Even so, on the average the lifelong single people experienced more improvements over time in autonomy and personal growth than the people who stayed married.

That’s something to write home about.

Reference: Marks, N., & Lambert, J. D. (1998). Marital status continuity and change among young and midlife adults: Longitudinal effects on psychological well-being. Journal of Family Issues, 19, 652-686.

[For more on affirmative, research-based perspectives on single life, take a look at Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and The Best of Single Life.]