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Singled out: why can't we believe unmarried, childless women are happy?

Happy singles

At the Hay festival late last month, I gave a talk about my new book, Happy Ever After, which discusses happiness data surrounding relationships. My conclusion – that single women might be healthier and happier than married women and married women with children – was met with surprise from many, delight from single women and shock and even outrage from other quarters, especially on social media. Many pointed to their own experience to criticise me, saying that they – or their wives – were happier now that they were married or parents than they were when they were single. One man tweeted photos of his wife as apparent proof. I was accused of spreading propaganda. “How far will the media push this ‘independent woman’ narrative?” was one popular tweet.

It is true that there is lots of variation across people, and people are obviously not randomly allocated to marriage – so we cannot know for sure the causal effects of marriage on health and happiness. There is some pretty robust evidence, though, that single people are more likely to foster social connections that bring them fulfilment, whereas married people often find themselves with less consciously chosen social networks, such as a spouse’s family members. Single people are also more likely to volunteer and to participate in social events. By contrast, married and cohabiting individuals tend to become more socially isolated, even without the excuse of children. The longitudinal nature of these data suggests this relationship is causal, with those entering marriage more likely to lose existing connections than those who do not marry. Social connectedness is linked to happiness – so this might go a long way towards explaining why single people aren’t as miserable as many people would imagine (and, it seems, sometimes even hope) them to be.

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