In London, I was invited to participate in a debate about love, life, and being free with some very smart and accomplished people. I was honored to be part of an intellectually exciting festival; my debate was just one of the many events. But I was freaked out by one of the questions we debaters were asked to address.
It was this: “Is searching for love what makes us human?”
Because each of us only had a very brief period of time to respond, I only got to make the first few points I had prepared. Here, though, I can share with you the complete text of what I would have said, if I had unlimited time.
A question like this – based, I assume, on just the stingy, narrow sense of the word love as only romantic love – is startling. It suggests that people like me, who are not searching for romantic love, are somehow not even human. It takes my breath away.
If being human is about the searching part, then what happens to all those people who have already found romantic love? Have they turned into insects?
What makes you human is being human. If you are a person, you count as human. Maybe the question is about something beyond that – what makes life meaningful? The answer to that has no bounds. Love can bring meaning – especially if we recognize that love is a many-splendored thing and is never going to be content to get stuck just between romantic partners. The things we care about the most can make life meaningful. So can the savoring of the small stuff, the seemingly unremarkable experiences of everyday life.
I don’t think that question was meant to be insulting. But that’s telling, too. “Singlism,” which is what I call the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single, differs from other isms such as racism and sexism in several ways. One of them is that, unlike those more familiar prejudices, singlism is often practiced without awareness or self-consciousness.
In the long history of stereotyping and stigmatizing various groups, describing them as less than human is standard practice. And it is not all in the past, either. Racists still enjoy depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as monkeys or apes.
In the U.S., there is a prestigious festival like this one, called the Aspen Ideas Festival. Their mission is to bring together “the foremost thinkers in the world” to address “challenging questions.” In 2015, the Festival brought together a group of these foremost thinkers to address this question: “Can single people be happy?” None of their panelists hesitated to answer that question.
Imagine if these brilliant thinkers were instead asked to answer questions such as:
- Can women be leaders?
- Can old people contribute to society?
- Can black people be smart?
- Can women be anything but selfish if they don’t have kids?
None of them would ever take questions like that seriously. They would immediately recognize the bigotry and condescension in them. But when they were asked, “Can single people be happy,” they treated it like a totally reasonable question. And when they did concede that well, yeah, maybe single people can be happy, they mostly did so grudgingly, and they let it be known that those poor single people could never be as happy as their coupled counterparts. One of the participants sent me a link; I guess he thought I would be thrilled that they all patted me on the head and said, “there, there, single person; maybe you can have a tiny taste of happiness, too.”
I have scrutinized hundreds of studies of happiness. The average happiness ratings for single people in every single one of them is on the happy end of the scale. Not only is it possible for single people to be happy – it is typical.
And contrary to the standard storyline, getting married typically does not make people happier. At best, people enjoy just a brief increase in happiness around the time of the wedding, and then their happiness slips. And not all people who marry get that honeymoon effect; the people who divorce are already becoming less happy as their wedding day approaches.
So yes, single people – including those who are not searching for romantic love — are happy. And they are also fully human.
[Note of thanks: I got this debate question in advance, so I ran it by the members of the Community of Single People to see what they thought. Their wise commentary was very helpful and I thank them for that.]