We single people are not all the same. Social scientists rarely acknowledge the important distinctions among us. Perhaps one of the most important ways that single people differ is in their choice about living single. Some people have chosen to be single, whereas others are single by circumstance and would rather be coupled.
When you read about studies comparing married people to single people, those studies almost never distinguish between single people who do and do not want to be single. Yet, when researchers focus on people who are currently married, they are, in a way, looking specifically at those who choose to be married – because all married people, at least in theory, have the option of divorcing if they don’t want to be married. So the currently-married people are a select group in a way that the currently-single people are not. That’s one of the many ways that studies comparing married people to single people are unfairly biased in favor of married people. (I’ve explained this and other biases here and here and here. If you read the article I’m going to describe below, note that the author is like most in that she does not recognize those biases and repeats claims that are misleading.)
Because the matter of choice is likely to be so important to the single experience, and because there is so little research on the matter, I’m alert to any studies I can find, even if they are only suggestive. In a recent study compared the mental health and mental health illnesses of young Polish single people. There were 320 participants, including university students and people from outside the university. All had been single (not married and not in a committed romantic relationship) for at least the past 6 months. The voluntarily single people said that it was their decision to be single. The involuntarily single people said that they were single because of circumstances beyond their control.
On every measure that showed a difference, or a hint of a difference, between the voluntarily single people and the involuntarily single people, the people who chose to be single did better. Specifically:
- People who chose to be single experienced less romantic loneliness. That means they were less likely to feel lonely and attribute that loneliness to not having a romantic partner.
- People who choose to be single tended to experience less anxiety and insomnia.
- People who choose to be single tended to be less likely to experience severe depression.
- People who choose to be single tended to have fewer mental health illnesses, averaged across all the different illnesses that were assessed.
- There were also hints that people who choose to be single tended to enjoy greater psychological well-being, have fewer somatic symptoms, and less social dysfunction, but those results were not statistically significant.
[For anyone interested in the statistical weeds: For anxiety and insomnia, severe depression, and overall mental health illness, the results were significant when the measures were analyzed individually. But when they were included as part of a multivariate analysis, the overall multivariate effect was only marginally significant at p = .09. For psychological well-being, somatic symptoms, and social dysfunction, the individual effects were only marginally significant.]
I think there are at least two reasons to believe that the real links between choosing single life and mental health are even stronger than the current study suggests. First, the voluntary single people only wanted to be single temporarily. They were people who chose to be single for at least the past six months but who wanted to become committed to a romantic partner within the next year or so. That’s a very different attitude toward single life than that of people who are “single at heart.” For them, single life is their best, most meaningful, and most fulfilling life, and not just temporarily. I think that if the voluntarily single people wanted more than temporary singlehood, they would have had even clearer advantages over the single people who did not want to be single at all. Second, the single people in the study were all very young – between 22 and 26 years old. The author selected young singles deliberately. But many are probably just finding their way in life. They are still trying to figure out who they are and what kind of life suits them best. Once they become more mature and more confident about identity issues, perhaps those who choose single life will be even more distinct from those who do not.
Adamczyk, K. (2016). Voluntary and involuntary singlehood and young adults’ mental health: an investigation of the mediating role of romantic loneliness. Current Psychology, published online in July 2016, pp. 1-17. doi:10.1007/s12144-016-9478-3.