People who are not married have different values than married people do. They care more about expressive and individualistic experiences, such as creativity, freedom, trying new things, and having fun. People who embrace those kinds of post-materialistic values, regardless of their marital status, are happier. But married and unmarried people do not benefit equally from such values. People who are not married get more happiness out of the valuing of freedom, creativity, trying new things, and having fun than married people do.

These findings are from the European Social Survey, years 2002 through 2014, of more than 200,000 people from 31 European nations. Professor Elyakim Kislev’s report of his study, “Happiness, post-materialistic values, and the unmarried,” has been published online in the Journal of Happiness Studies and will appear later in a print edition of the journal. 

During the years following the Great Depression and the two world wars, Kislev notes, people yearned for economic security and stability. Perhaps in the hope of attaining those goals, they were especially likely to marry young, stayed married, and have children. As later generations began to feel more secure economically, their values became less materialistic. Expressive and individualistic values began to take hold in many countries around the world, values that seem particularly compatible with single life.

Marriage rates have been declining for decades, and at the same time, the value placed on freedom, creativity, trying new things, and having fun has been increasing. Scholars and pundits have warned that these trends may leave people feeling unhappy. But do they really? And if so, are single people most at risk?

In the study, Professor Kislev asked whether people who are not married value freedom, creativity, trying new things, and having fun more than married people do. Then he tested whether those values were linked to happiness. Next, he looked at whether the link between those values and happiness was any different for the people who were not married than for the people who were married.

Kislev looked separately at different categories of unmarried people — divorced and separated, widowed, and always-single. He also compared people who were cohabiting with a romantic partner to those who were married.

Happiness was measured by participants’ response to the question, “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” Post-materialistic values were assessed by participants’ ratings of the importance of being free, being creative, trying new things, and having fun.

People who are not married value freedom more than married people do

All the unmarried people (the divorced, widowed, and always-single people, and the cohabiting individuals, too) value freedom more than married people do. Divorced people care more about all four post-materialistic values than married people do: They place a higher value on freedom, creativity, trying new things, and having fun. Cohabiters do, too. Lifelong single people value freedom and fun-seeking more than married people do. Widows only value freedom more than married people do.

All the analyses take into account other ways that the marital status groups might differ, such as in their age, health, education, income, social activities, religiosity, and feelings of discrimination. By controlling for those factors statistically, it becomes more likely that the differences among the groups are about their marital status and not other factors. Still, we cannot know for sure whether differences in marital status are the cause of the differences in values.

The more that people value freedom, creativity, trying new things, and having fun, the happier they are.

Contrary to the warnings that valuing freedom, creativity, new experiences, and fun would lead people down the road to despair, just the opposite seemed to happen in this study. Averaged across the 200,000 people from 31 nations, post-materialistic values were linked to greater happiness (though again, we cannot know for sure whether the values caused the happiness). People who placed a higher value on freedom, creativity, trying new things, and having fun were happier than people who valued those experiences less.

People who are not married get more happiness out of their post-materialistic values than married people do.

Previous research has shown that single people sometimes get more out of their individualistic values than married people do. For example, a study comparing lifelong single people to married people found that valuing personal mastery and self-sufficiency protected single people, more than married people, from negative feelings.

The same kinds of results were found in this 31-nation study. People who were not married got more happiness out of post-materialistic values than married people did. The link between valuing creativity and feeling happier was stronger for the divorced, widowed, and lifelong single people than it was for the married people. So was the link between trying new things and happiness, having fun and happiness, and valuing freedom and happiness (except for the always-single people — the correlation with freedom was the same for them as for the married people). That means that in 11 of 12 tests (4 values x 3 categories of unmarried people), unmarried people got more happiness out of their values than married people did. Cohabiting people, though, looked the same as married people in this regard: both groups got the same amount of happiness out of their values.

This was interesting, too.

People are rarely asked about discrimination in studies of the implications of being single or married, despite its relevance, but they were in this study. The percentage who reported feelings of discrimination was highest for the lifelong single people and lowest for the married and widowed people:

% feeling discrimination:

9.6% of always-single

9.0% of divorced

8.0% of cohabiting

5.8% of married

5.2% of widowed

The results probably underestimate the true rates of discrimination against single people, since people are not as aware of singlism as they are of other "isms," such as racism and sexism.

Professor Kislev also acknowledged something else that is important, yet typically ignored in studies of marital status. He noted that single people in this study and others include people who may have very different attitudes toward single life, yet they are all averaged together. People who are single at heart and embrace single life, for example, are different from the single people who wish they were coupled. The finding that singles get more out of their post-materialistic values than married people do, for example, was based on all single people, suggesting that even those singles who are unhappy with their status derive happiness from their expressive and individualistic values.

Unfortunately, though, the author also makes unwarranted causal claims about the benefits of marrying and cites some dated and dubious references to do so. The most sophisticated research, much of it recent, just doesn’t support the popular, simplistic narratives that insist that getting married makes people happier, less depressed, and better off in other ways, too.  

Dismissing the dismissive characterizations of single people

Single people have been stereotyped in all sorts of ways. For example, they are sometimes derogated as dreary people who are too obsessed with work to have a life and have some fun. Yet, lifelong single people and divorced people care about having fun more than married people do, and it pays off for them in greater happiness.

Unmarried people are also put down for wanting to be free. Divorced people, lifelong single people, and widowed people — and cohabiters, too — all care about being free more than married people do. This value doesn’t cost them anything. Divorced and widowed people get more happiness out of their valuing of freedom than married people do, while lifelong singles and cohabiters get the same amount.

Other research shows that single people’s individualistic values are not leaving them isolated and alone. Quite the contrary. It is single people, more so than married people, who do more to maintain their ties with their friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents.

Also, although the pursuit of freedom and fun may sound self-centered, single people are, in important ways, more giving and more caring than married people. For example, they volunteer more for most organizations (except for religious ones), and they are more likely to be there for their aging parents when they need care.

The study did not explore whether individualistic values are linked to other important outcomes beyond happiness. For example, is it possible that people who value creativity and trying new things are more likely to make important medical, scientific, or technological discoveries or artistic contributions? As social scientists so often say at the end of their articles, more research is needed.

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