Times change — and people change with them. Which is why it's important that we revisit conventional wisdom, the stuff we think we know. For example, being single now is a different experience today than it was in the past.
Today, a much greater percentage of the population is single, and even those people who do eventually cohabit and/or marry will spend a greater part of their lives on their own. At the same time, the nature of work has changed for many, and the concept of community has also shifted. My community includes childhood friends located 3,000 miles away who I text several times a week; people I see weekly at yoga class; and editors and fellow writers who I chat with daily on Facebook or via email. Only one of the things on my list is similar to what someone would have qualified as community 40 years ago.
When how we live changes this much, that impacts other parts of our lives. For example, while research from the 1960s and 1970s showed correlations between better health (especially for men) and marriage, more recent studies show something different. That doesn't mean those older studies were necessarily wrong, it might just mean that singlehood and marriage have changed alongside other cultural mores, so it would make sense that their effects on health did, too.
As this news report shows, research is starting to show that single people are the healthy ones these days:
In a 2019 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers looked at seven different benchmarks of well-being. They found that people in relationships were better off than single people in only one way. People who were in relationships were better off only when they reported that those relationships were exceptional. Being single, they found, was better than being in a "neutral" relationship.
"Results indicated that being in a romantic relationship, interacting with one’s partner, and investing greater time into the relationship all predicted greater well-being. However, these effects were moderated by relationship quality, such that being in even relatively neutral relationships and interacting therein were associated with lower well-being than being unpartnered," they said.
In an earlier study published in Social Science Quarterly, 12,000 people were polled about health, then divided into three age cohorts, and the length of their marriages were taken into account. No matter how the data was sliced and diced, no health benefits were found among men or women married for fewer than four years, or in the group that was married for five to nine years. There were also no benefits for men in the longer marriages (10 years or longer) and very minimal benefits for women in the longer marriages.
A Swiss study found that marriage might even have negative health effects: In analyzing the effects of 16 years of data, they found a "very small" uptick in health protection among married people, but that was obliterated by the three times stronger negative health impact of divorce. Overall, the scientists wrote that their findings about marriage and its relationship to health, "...cast doubts about the theory of health protection."
Positive effects of being single
Much research has examined the positive effects of marriage, but there aren't as many studies on the positive effects of singledom. It was just assumed that people not paired off would be less healthy without a spouse to look out for them. But we know that single people tend to work out more, and married people are heavier than their single counterparts. (I gained 25 pounds pretty quickly after pairing up, and I know that's not uncommon.) Those sans wedding rings are also more likely to be involved in their communities, both volunteering more and, as I wrote previously, being more socially active:
"Since married people usually focus their energy and attention on their spouses (and kids, if they have them) this leaves less room for others — and less time for being involved in local groups and attending events, taking classes, or even just going out to dinner with friends. This means that single people are important drivers of their local economies because they're creating and engaging in life outside the home at higher rates."
Marriage is still highly rewarded in our culture (not just during and following a wedding, but by the government via tax breaks and other perks like free or low-cost health care for wives or husbands). Most people still see marriage as a goal that's part of being an adult. This leads to a sometimes-subtle effect: Unmarried people are looked down on, and they may question their happiness. Conversely, married people might assume they must be happy because they're filling a socially prescribed role. That cultural bias could explain some of the modest effects found between marriage and personal happiness. Most people feel good about themselves when they fulfill others' ideas of how they should live. Or it could be that happier people tend to marry, not that marriage causes happiness.
Whether cultural perception or personality-based in terms of its effects on happiness, marriage has little to do with health. As the authors of the Swiss study wrote: "We speculate that marriage is primarily linked to a more positive evaluation of one's life rather than to better health."
In my mind, this data all points to at least one solid conclusion: That one relationship style isn't right for everyone — some people will probably be happier and healthier being married, while others are better off on their own. There's no good reason for all of us to follow the same life script anymore; we live in a wonderful time that allows us to make the choices that are truly the best for us, which sounds like a healthy way to live.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in October 2017.