As more people choose the single life, researchers ask: are they happier?

As more people choose the single life, researchers ask: are they happier?

Nastasha Streiling says even though she’d like a relationship, she’s happy being single.

The 28-year-old, who lives in Victoria, says she’s “not going to be with someone unless it enhances things.” 

She’s part of a growing number of single people in Canada and around the world. 

“There seems to be evidence that around the world people are staying single longer and sometimes staying single permanently,” said Geoff MacDonald, a psychologist at the University of Toronto whose lab studies the well-being of single people.

In Canada, there’s been a drop in the number of people living together as couples from 1981 to 2021, according to Statistics Canada. 

Researchers say this drop in the number of couples is due to societal shifts. Data shows there are fewer people getting married, and some divorced people are choosing to remain single.

“I also think that those trends in divorce made people think very carefully about what it is that they do want in their life,” said Yuthika Girme, an associate professor who studies relationships and singlehood at Simon Fraser University (SFU). “And if they do want to be in a relationship, who their potential partner is.” 

She also says some people are choosing to delay romantic relationships to focus on their careers. 

Are single people unhappy? 

For years, many studies on singlehood focused specifically on relationship status in comparison to well-being. 

“I think what happened is that it gave rise to people making assumptions and stereotypes about single people,” said Girme, who leads the Singlehood Experiences and Complexities Underlying Relationships Lab at SFU.

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She says her own research as well as MacDonald’s looks into the well-being of singles in order to better understand the role their relationship statuses play in their happiness.

For example, this 2023 study showed there are other factors that impact a single person’s overall life satisfaction and feelings about being single. The 2021 study surveyed more than 900 single people around the world from different cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations.

MacDonald’s research found that those who are most unhappy about being single and who have the lowest overall satisfaction with their lives are people who crave connection. He describes them as “anxiously attached” individuals. 

Those who are happiest with being single tend to be more independent people who are comfortable being alone, he said.

“There’s actually not a lot of difference between the kinds of people who are happy single, and the kinds of people who are happy in relationships.” 

MacDonald said the people with the highest life satisfaction are those who are happy to be single but are also open to being in a relationship. He described them as “emotionally stable” people who like to connect with others. 

“Our data suggests that it’s not so much that getting into a relationship makes people happy. There’s probably better evidence that happy people are more likely to get into relationships.” 

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Societal pressure and the singles tax

Despite research that suggests a person’s relationship doesn’t determine how happy they are, Girme points out that society has reinforced the values of romantic relationships and marriage.  

For example, certain reality shows, romantic comedies and Christmas movies focus on the end goal of a single person finding a partner. 

Photo illustration on blue and purple background show cut out images from various movies and television. From left to right: image of woman eating chocolate, image of woman crying in pyjamas, image of two people kissing, image of woman looking annoyed.

Girme said movies and media tend to portray explicit messages about romantic partners being pivotal to happiness. (Steven Silcox/Photo Illustration/CBC)

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen dating shows where a person walks away from it being like, ‘Yeah, I gave it a go, I’m still single and I’m OK with that,’ ” said Girme. “It’s always looked at with pity if people aren’t able to find a match.” 

Society is not only inclined to create negative stereotypes around singlehood, it’s also designed to economically support people in relationships.

Agraj Rathi, who lives in Vancouver, says he’s experienced pressure from friends and family to get married. The 26-year-old also says there’s a financial benefit to being in a relationship. 

“I feel like society is very couple focused in the sense that if you have somebody to share expenses, it’s very easy to have a higher quality of living.” 

People who don’t couple up are stuck paying what’s come to be known as the “singles tax.” It’s the difference between what a single person pays for something over a year, compared to the cost per person if it’s shared by a couple.

There are also taxes in Canada that benefit couples, according to Girme. For example, those in married or common-law relationships can receive a spousal tax credit if one partner has a lower income. They can also pool medical expenses and split pensions with their partners, if eligible.

WATCH | Are you paying the singles tax?  

Support from friends and family

Girme’s research suggested that a single person’s happiness largely hinges on the discrimination that comes from those closest to them who are aware of their relationship status. 

Her research has looked at the discrimination single people can face that can lead to lower well-being. The first study included participants from New Zealand, while the second study focused on people from the U.S. and Canada. Both included people from different backgrounds and genders.

The paper comparing the two studies found that interactions with close friends and family about being single, rather than a person’s single status, is what threatens their happiness.

Photo illustration shows multiple images of Streiling with her friends.

Streiling, seen here with her friends, said she doesn’t feel pressure from them to be in a relationship, but she has felt pressure from family. (Steven Silcox/Photo Illustration/CBC)

That’s something that Streiling has experienced.  

“There’s always, always, always the question at family gatherings where it’s like, ‘Oh, are you seeing anyone?'” 

Girme says people should avoid asking about a person’s relationship status unless it’s clear the person wants to talk about it.

“By asking these questions, we centre the conversation around partnership as being the ultimate goal.” 

Streiling says she has many friends on a similar path, who are less focused on finding a partner. “I’m very happy in my current life.” 

For now, she says a partner shouldn’t make her life more complicated. “So if that means me being single, then that’s totally fine.”

This is part of CBC News Social’s dating series, which explores the realities of being single and dating in Canada today.

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