The Atlantic Magazine goes to the Aspen Ideas Festival and asks “the experts” to comment on a question we find insulting: “Can single people be happy?”
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The Aspen Ideas Festival, by reputation, is one of those cool, cutting edge places where the smartest people in the world gather to share their brilliance. As their website puts it, “The mission of the Festival is to create a stimulating and invigorating convocation that links some of the foremost thinkers in the world today with civically-minded leaders… who will share ideas, raise challenging questions, and inspire thought to action.”
No dopey questions for this group! And surely, no bigotry.
Imagine the reactions you would get if you tried, in the year 2015, to pose questions such as the following to the foremost thinkers in the world:
- 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?
I think you would get answers such as, “Are you f*ing kidding me?!!!” The intellectuals would recoil at the mere thought of addressing such insulting, bigoted, stupid, regressive questions. They would start wondering whether the Aspen Ideas Festival had been taken over by the Flat Earth Society.
Not one of those questions was posed to those “foremost thinkers in the world” at the 2015 ideas festival. Nor was the one I used as the title of this post (“Can married people be happy?”), which also would have been ridiculous. But a question exactly parallel to that title, and just like the condescending and creepy questions listed above, was asked of five people described as “experts.” That question, answered in a video clip was: “Can Single People Be Happy?”
This is not a parody from The Onion. This is serious. All five of the “experts” convened to address “challenging questions” took that question seriously. They seemed to be deep in thought as they formulated their responses, as if they were asked to solve one of the enduring mysteries of the human condition.
I wonder whether they were all proud of themselves as they all conceded (sometimes grudgingly) that yes, single people can be happy. Did they think that single people like me would be grateful to be patted on our heads and told that yes, dear, you can be happy, too? Maybe not as happy as the superior married people, but still.
Not one of the five leading thinkers responded in the way every single one of them should have: “Are you kidding me?!!!”
The “experts” were two journalists, a professor of developmental and moral psychology, a professor who studies marriage, and a research fellow who studies the physiology of the brain. That’s why I’m putting “experts” in scare quotes. There was not one person who was an expert in single life. I’m not putting down any of these people in the context of what they do. I know some of their work and it is superb. But they are not experts on single people or single life. The vibe I got from watching the video was akin to how I feel when Republicans convene a panel about women’s health, and include in the panel only men.
Even though none had any scholarly expertise on single people or single life, I still expected a progressive sensibility. Instead, these cutting-edge “experts” flaunted their command of…conventional wisdom. They were true fonts of singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single).
One of the journalists is someone I regard as otherwise brilliant; when I see her byline, I sometimes read her work even if I have no interest in the topic, just because she wrote it. She offered the idea that for a lot of people, happiness is anticipation. It is knowing that there are beautiful things ahead of you. And so by that standard, she said, single people can be happy because “if you are single, there’s a lot that lies ahead.”
I think she is saying that the way single people can count as happy is that they get to look forward to what comes next. I can’t figure out a way to interpret her statement to allow for the possibility that that there are single people who like being single, who choose single life.
She adds later that although happiness is “not all about your spouse, it helps. The data suggest it…” So there it is – the one about how getting married makes you happier. Stated without doubt or qualification. As longtime readers of my blog know, the case is not at all as this journalist and so many others have proclaimed. (My most compelling and up-to-date arguments and critiques are in Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong.)
One of the professors heard the word “single” and went straight to loneliness: “Loneliness is terrible,” he tells us. Then he adds that we all need human contact but the kind of contact we need varies a lot, and so that lets single people in on the possibility of happiness. (Gee, thanks.)
The professor who studies marriage (again, an otherwise brilliant and highly accomplished scholar) said that we all need meaningful social relationships but we can get that from a best friend or a sibling. But he didn’t want to leave it at that. He added, “I do think that having a meaningful, successful marriage is about as good a thing as you can do to be happy.” So my life as a single person is second rate?
Let’s consider a few actual facts about single people.
Just in the U.S., there are about 107 million adults, 18 and older, who are not married. Yet all five of the great thinkers, when asked whether single people can be happy, accepted that as a reasonable question that required thoughtfulness. As if a totally plausible answer would have been, “No, not even one single person out of 107 million could possibly be happy.” Again, I keep coming back to my own reaction, “Are you kidding me?!!!”
Academic journals are filled with articles about marital status and happiness. I’ve looked very closely at many of them (and I don’t mean just the abstracts or the press releases or media reports). For every study I have ever examined, the average happiness of the single people was always on the happy end of the scale! I have never seen a published study in which single people are, on the average, unhappy.
And even though you may have heard that getting married makes people happier, just about every study ever published uses a cheater technique that gives married people an unfair advantage. (See, for example, the first two books listed at the end of this article.) Take a look at the very few studies that do not stack the deck in favor of the married people (or that do so less than most other studies), and the case for the transformative power of marriage collapses.
There was no one in the Aspen Ideas Festival video who seemed to realize that for a substantial number of people, single life is not a consolation prize. The idea that there may be people who are “single at heart” – people for whom living single is the way they live their best, most meaningful, and most authentic lives – well, that seemed to be an idea that was beyond the grasp of these foremost thinkers.
Reading Recommendations: For some readings that will offer you a more accurate take on single people and single life than you would get from that offensive Aspen Ideas video, check out:
- Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After
- Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong
- The Best of Single Life
- How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century
This article originally appeared Psychology Today where Bella DePaulo is a regular contributor. Reprinted here with permission.