In Jane Austen’s time, being a single was something that got progressively worse with age.
If fine ladies were not persuaded to matrimony by 21 (ancient!), they may well end up an “old maid” who would “teach your ten children to embroider cushions and play their instruments very ill”.
Though well-bred bachelors didn’t have the same financial imperative, it was still expected that they “must be in want of a wife”.
Fast-forward to present day, and our social tapestry is very different. A new study flagged by social psychologist Bella DePaulo shows that being single is something that has got better not only over time – but with age, too.
In the just-published analysis of 2,552 people over an 18-year period, people who stayed single “became more satisfied with their lives as they grew older”.
Researchers could only speculate as to why this was. But it’s very possible that the unique benefits of being single (many of which are only emerging now, due to a historic bias in science towards marriage) become more potent as we get older.
One, in particular, stands out: autonomy.
The joy of autonomy
Forget wealth or popularity: studies show that autonomy – the feeling that your life is self-chosen – is the number one contributor to happiness.
Conversely, when you feel like you lack control due to people or circumstances, your self-esteem takes a nosedive.
While marriage (thankfully) no longer means giving up your autonomy, research shows that the more a relationship is governed by individual need, the more likely it is to fail.
Why? The dynamic of a successful romantic relationship is impossible to grasp fully, but we do know that sacrifice is an asset to keeping things strong.
And that willingness “to forgo self-interest and desired activities for the good of a partner” may not *actually* be a good thing, when you consider how important autonomy is to us.
On the flip side, the ability to sidestep this sacrifice is one of the most underrated values of being single. That’s not to say single people are selfish – quite the opposite, in fact – but without having a partner to answer to, the world opens up.
You can take that big career leap when you want to, or book a life-changing adventure on a whim. You’re more open to acting on your gut, tapping the happiness habit of novel experiences and positive risk-taking.
This is the kind of behaviour, say scientists, that leads to growth; “providing an opportunity to escape the mundane and [offering] a sense of excitement through self-actualization”.
Going against the grain
So, how does the joy of a self-governing single lifestyle improve with age? Well, when you’re in your 30s and 40s, you typically have more money than before, giving you the financial freedom to realise your goals.
And you have more confidence to make things happen, too. We all know that glorious freedom that comes from caring less about what others think; something that typically kicks in during your 30s and beyond.
As well as caring less about cultural pressure to “settle down”, you may also note the limitations of people around you who have. Your 30s and 40s are a time when friends get wed and start families in earnest; so you get a front-row view on what this actually entails.
Not in a critical way – each to their own, after all – but simply, your observations may show you the benefits of another path. And in your 30s and 40s, you have the self-belief to listen to that instinct, along with the conviction to break free from a more conventional lifestyle (should you wish).
By exercising this freedom, you are literally doing the opposite of “settling down”.
“There may be less predictability to how your life unfolds if you stay single, as compared to following the more celebrated life script of marrying and having children,” says DePaulo. “But less predictability can mean more possibilities, and that can be exhilarating.”
The path to adventure
Eleanore Robinson, single in her 40s, knows this feeling well. She recently quit her full-time job to go freelance. “I am in a position to do literally whatever I want; whether that means flying off on a last-minute trip, or the sheer pleasure of watching bad TV,” she says.
“Having the freedom to try new experiences truly is a gift, as is reconnecting with pleasures you enjoyed in the past but did not have the time or funds to do as much as you like.”
Abbie Burton, who is 36 and single, agrees. “I’ve not set out to ‘shun’ the perceived norm of marriage and 2.4 children but as my life hasn’t taken that route, other paths have opened up and I’m more than happy to embrace them,” she says.
“I’ve pushed my own boundaries more then I could ever have imagined (6 months camping through Africa – I’d never have thought I could do that 10 years ago, but I did – and I loved it!) and I like to think that I’m a better person for it.”
Having more autonomy also means you can conduct your relationships how and when you want; and considering how strongly friends are connected to health and happiness, the benefits of this can’t be underestimated.
We all know that getting older means you start choosing better friends. You’re more selective, and you know yourself better; so you know what it is that you want.
But studies show couples are generally more insular than single people; they look inwards to each other, rather than out to the world.
Not only does this build the dependency we’ve already seen can be a problem; it also means that those in long-term relationships may be missing out on those good-quality friendships.
The new study DePaulo highlights shows that over the course of their adult lives, whether people have a romantic partner becomes less relevant to how lonely they feel. People can still be isolated, whether or not they’re coupled up.
And if we discount romantic relationships, it’s the weight of your friendships that are left. By being single, you may well have poured more time and energy into curating good ones.
Finding your purpose
As you get older, the agency to do what you want by virtue of being single means you more easily develop something else. The Japanese might call this something “ikigai” – meaning purpose; the cross-section of your passion, drive and values.
“Your ikigai is what gets you up every morning and keeps you going,” says Japan Today. “Having this one thing that keeps you interested, focused, and gives you a sense of satisfaction in life […] it can make you live longer and with more direction.”
Deb Ashby, a 40-year-old from London, seems to have found hers.
“I grew up dreaming of climbing Mount Everest as opposed to walking down the aisle in a big white dress,” she says. “I put off buying a house choosing to invest my savings in travel instead.
“It really boils down to, what is your passion? and what is your priority? I feel lucky to have known from a young age that the answer for me was travel.”
Your ikigai, whatever it may be, is rooted in a feeling of deep satisfaction and worth. And the self-fulfilling agency that comes with being older, and single, means you’re freer to root around and hit on what it is.
As New York writer and 40-something singleton Glynnis MacNicol puts it: “My life is more enjoyable now than it has ever been, and more fulfilling. My relationships have deepened; I feel more secure and confident. The word I come back to is that I feel incredibly powerful.”
Amen to that.
Find freedom and friendships with an adventure for one
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Images: Flash Pack, Shutterstock, James Hall