The age of the happy, accomplished, unapologetic single person has arrived. Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, by Hebrew University sociologist Elyakim Kislev, is here to herald it.
There is no place for pity in Happy Singlehood. Kislev shows that single people are, on the whole, already doing well. They do not need to desperately seek coupledom to improve their lot in life. The kinds of questions we need to ask about single people, Kislev believes, include: What are they doing right? How can they do even better? And what can other people learn from them?
To answer those kinds of questions, Kislev analyzed data from hundreds of thousands of people from more than thirty nations. He also scrutinized more than 400 blog posts, more than 300 magazine and newspaper articles, and thousands of comments on Facebook posts about single life. He did interviews, too, of 142 single people from the U.S. and various European nations.
Happy Singlehood, published by the University of California Press, was deeply researched and sourced, boasting an astounding 63 pages of notes and references at the end. It is a treasure trove for any scholars interested in developing expertise in the study of single people.
The book, though, is not just for academic types. Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, unconventional take on single life will find a lot to like in Happy Singlehood. Kislev treats readers to the kinds of approaches we have come to expect from the most successful nonfiction trade books, including, for example, illustrating his points with stories from the single people he interviewed as well as anecdotes from his own life.
Overwhelmingly, books about single life are written by and about women. They are also very disproportionately about singlehood in the U.S., and maybe a few other Western nations. Happy Singlehood adds some much-welcome balance. It is written by a single man, it is about single men as well as single women, and, in more than just a token way, it is international in its scope.
Happy Singlehood is one of the most recent in a growing list of books about single life. This surge of interest has at least one obvious motivator — the rise in the number of people living single. Kislev notes that this is happening even in conservative societies: “Almost everywhere, it seems, the number of people delaying marriage, living alone, or choosing to be single is on the rise.”
In the first chapter beyond the introduction, “The Age of Singlehood,” Kislev describes eight major mechanisms accounting for the declining status of marriage: demographic changes; changes in women’s roles; risk aversion in the age of divorce; economics, consumerism, and capitalism; shifts in religiosity; popular culture and the media; urbanization; and immigration. Lots of authors have speculated about the changing role of marriage, but aside from books devoted entirely to that topic, this is the most comprehensive discussion I’ve seen.
Kislev argues that the eight forces “act simultaneously, making the rise in singlehood a real and sustainable trend, perhaps even unstoppable.” They are, he adds, “so powerful that it seems time for us to face reality, embrace the trend, and start paving the way to an age of happy singlehood.”
When I first skimmed the table of contents, I was surprised that the chapter on older singles, “Happy Singlehood in Old Age,” was upfront — the second chapter in the book. Shouldn’t it come toward the end? Kislev explains that one of the most powerful reasons for marrying is “the fear of aging alone and dying without anyone at our bedside.” That fear, then, had to be addressed early on. And wow, did Kislev ever address it. By the end of the chapter, readers may end up feeling a wee bit sorry for those married people: “Not only do married people feel lonely in surprisingly high numbers, but also long-term singles are often better equipped to deal with loneliness in later life.” His explanations for why lifelong single people are, in some ways, in a better position in old age are among the true delights of the book.
Among pundits and even some scholars, there has been quite a bit of hand-wringing about the rise of individualistic values. Their concern is that the valuing of freedom, creativity, fun, and trying new things is fraying social bonds and making people miserable. Single people get targeted for much of the blame. Kislev shows that they are right in one way — people who are not married embrace those values more than married people do. But they are exactly wrong about the misery. People who care more about individualistic values — whether single or married — are happier. Unmarried people, though, get even more happiness out of those values.
The pearl-clutchers are also wrong in seeing single people as isolated and alone. Kislev’s analyses of the data from the hundreds of thousands of European adults showed that lifelong single people are the most social – they have the most interactions with friends and family. Married people are the least social, with the previously married, as well as cohabiters, in between.
Typically, people who spend more time with their friends and relatives, whether single or married, are happier. Feeling optimistic, positive about yourself and your job, and feeling accomplished and valued are also correlated with happiness. Again, it is the single people who squeeze more happiness out of all of these experiences.
As affirming and positive as Happy Singlehood is, it does not deny singlism. Kislev devotes a chapter to the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of single people, and the discrimination against them. The title of that chapter is “Defying Social Pressure.” In it, he explains how that is done.
In the U.S., marriage is not just valued, it is actively promoted. As explained in a new report by the Family Story think tank, “The case against marriage fundamentalism: Embracing family justice for all,” conservative foundations have funded wide-ranging projects to privilege marriage and nuclear families over other ways of living. They even succeeded in getting more than a billion dollars moved from federal programs that ensured a minimum standard of living for low-income children into programs to promote marriage among adults. No such programs to teach the value of single life have ever been funded or even proposed.
Kislev argues for changing that, and not just in the U.S.: “Given that a quarter of today’s children will never marry, and that 40 to 50 percent of those who do will divorce, it is essential to equip children with a social and psychological ‘toolbox’ that will enable them to be happy singles. Learning about singleness in schools and supporting high-quality solo lifestyles through the health and welfare ministries, exactly as is done with family life, are essential to our society.”
Others need to do their part, too, Kislev maintains. Policy makers, social institutions, academic institutions, urban planners, and municipalities all need to re-orient in ways that acknowledge and support the rise of single people.
Happy Singlehood will not be the last iteration in the evolution of books about single people. There is room to do even better. For example, although Kislev is mostly good at avoiding the usual mythology about marriage, he sometimes slips, as, for example, when he says that “there is evidence to suggest that married people…benefit from improved levels of mental and physical health.” He cites a number of references, dating back to 1983, but not the many recent, sophisticated studies that counter those claims.
Here and there, Kislev seems oblivious to the single people who are on the cutting edge of embracing single life. For example, he says that “happy older singles are those who can come to terms with not having followed the traditional family path.” But some single people have nothing to come to terms with — they are unbothered by their unconventionality, or even proud of it.
Kislev has quite a lot to say about the importance to single people’s happiness of spending time with other people. That’s where his data have led him. But future writings, I trust, will have more to say about those single people who derive meaning and sustenance from the time they spend alone.
All told, Happy Singlehood is an extraordinarily important contribution to our understanding of single people. It will remain a touchstone for years to come.
Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living
University of California Press, February 2019
Paperback, 266 pages