Single and Loving It, for Some

Researchers find that people who work to avoid conflicts are just as happy single—in fact, they're happier than other singles.
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Researchers find that people who work to avoid conflicts are just as happy single—in fact, they're happier than other singles.
(Photo: Herr Olsen/Flickr)

(Photo: Herr Olsen/Flickr)

If you're single, having family and friends urging you to find a significant other is the worst. Well, cheer up, singletons, because science has your back: According to a new study, many of us are fine being single—depending on your personality.

Research on relationships has shown that people in marriages and other romantic relationships are happier than their non-committed cohorts. But the difference is actually fairly small, and "being single will not always reduce life satisfaction and well-being," Yuthika Girme and her colleagues at the University of Auckland explain in Social Psychology and Personality Science.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons why somebody might be happier without a significant other. "[E]ven good relationships can be difficult to manage and expose individuals to potential hurt and disappointment that single people can avoid," Girme and her team write. That's especially true for individuals who score high on what psychologists call avoidance goals—that is, people who maintain social connections by avoiding conflict-filled relationship experiences. For those people, the psychologists write, relationships may require more effort than they're worth.

People in relationships who scored low on the avoidance scale rated themselves about 14 percent more satisfied than low-avoidance singles.

"Being single, however, may give people high in avoidance goals some relief if they are free from the anxiety and pressures posed by the risk of rejection and negative relationship experiences they try to avoid," they write.

To test that hypothesis, the researchers first recruited 187 undergraduate students, mostly women, and asked each whether they were in a relationship, followed by two sets of questions that asked the subjects to rate, on seven-point scales, how satisfied they were in life and how much they agreed with a series of avoidance goals—for example, "I try to avoid disagreements and conflicts with people close to me."

As you might expect, people in relationships who scored low on the avoidance scale rated themselves about 14 percent more satisfied than low-avoidance singles. It was a different story for high-avoidance subjects: They were equally happy, regardless of their relationship status. In fact, high-avoidance people were as happy on average as low-avoidance people in relationships, and, not surprisingly, much happier than low-avoidance singles.

Girme and her colleagues followed up with a much larger data set drawn from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, which included responses from 4,024 people whose relationship status hadn't changed between the study's first round of questions in 2009 and a follow-up round a year later. While the overall size of the effect was smaller, the pattern was much the same. Low-avoidance people got a bump of five percent on the satisfaction scale from being in a relationship, while having a boyfriend or girlfriend made no difference to their satisfaction with life.

"[B]eing single does not undermine happiness for individuals who strive to sustain close relationships by trying to avoid conflict" the researchers conclude. For some of us, they write, "being single is okay."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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