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Can being single help you live longer?

Written by Anna Brech

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Anyone who’s ever been single in their 30s and 40s will be familiar with the titled head gaze.

The domain of well-meaning relatives, this time-honoured gesture is often accompanied by the words, “Shouldn’t you be settling down by now?”

(Side note – never feel obliged to do anything that starts with the word “should”).

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What these people fail to understand is that marriage is no longer an elixir for happiness. In fact, it never was.

It’s just that now, with more of us living single than ever before, we’ve finally getting wise to the fallacy of the Bridget Jones stereotype.

Being single does not make you sad and hankering after love. To the contrary, it may be the key to a long and joyous life. Here’s why:

Reaching a ripe old age

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The exact impact of being single on longevity has yet to be studied in detail, mainly because of a historic – and arguably exaggerated – analytical bias towards the benefits of marriage.

But anecdotally, a surprising number of the world’s oldest people credit their vitality to being single.

Read more: Meet the woman, 74, who traded love for lifelong travel

Whenever anyone asks Madeline Dye, a 106-year-old woman living in Yorkshire, about whether she has a husband (yes it still happens, even to centenarians), she replies, “I’ve never had one, that’s why I’m this age.”

“She says she has not had the stresses of marriage,” adds Madeline’s niece, Diana Heaton.

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Then there’s Emma Morano of Verbania, Italy, who lived to 117 years old – making her the oldest documented person in the world before her death last year.

Like Madeline, Emma credited her vigorous health to being single; she left an unhappy marriage in 1938 and flew solo ever since. Despite a slew of suitors, “I didn’t want to be dominated by anyone”, she said.

The world’s “super-solo” societies

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Maybe it’s no coincidence that Japan, which famously holds the world’s highest life expectancy,  is on-course to become a “super-solo society” of 50% single people.

Similarly Sweden, currently the world’s single living capital,  also boasts one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world.

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Longevity in both countries is often attributed to factors such as a prevalent fish diet and close community ties.

But, at a time when we are only just skirting the surface of what it means to live single, could living single play a role, too?

And if so, *how* do the unique lifestyle factors of singledom impact on a longer life?

Consistency is key

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Psychologist Bella DePaulo has spent years studying single life, and often points to the Terman Life-Cycle Study to refute the stereotype that marriage helps you live longer.

One of the most thorough longitudinal studies into longevity ever to have been conducted, this vast body of research followed the lifecycle of subjects from 1922 through to 1986.

Read more: Why women revel in the ritual of being single

Of the 1,528 people studied, it found two distinct groups lived longest: people who stayed married and people who stayed single.

“People who divorced, or who divorced and remarried, had shorter lives,” Bella writes, in Psychology Today. “What mattered was consistency, not marriage.

“The results were the same for the men and the women.”

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Given we are conditioned to resist change of any kind – and divorce is one of life’s most stressful events – this is perhaps not surprising.

But don’t forget, this study was conducted a long time ago, when it was less socially acceptable to live single; and simultaneously, we knew less about it.

Read more: Why spending time alone makes us happy

There are now a few important reasons why living single may bring even greater longevity and happiness than marriage – divorce or no..

The social factor

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Having a strong network around you is not just a “nice to have” in life – it’s critical to health and wellbeing.

Just as loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, so people with strong social relationships can increase their chances of survival by up to 50% over a long-term period.

Reaching out to those around you – friends, family, neighbours, strangers on the road – will prolong your life.

And single people are more likely to instinctively fulfill this need.

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A 2016 study from Boston College and the University of Massachusetts found that single people are more sociable than their married counterparts, and more likely to reach out to those around them.

“Single individuals are more likely to frequently stay in touch with, provide help to, and receive help from parents, siblings, neighbours, and friends than the married,” the researchers conclude. “Being single increases the social connections of both women and men.”

Read more: How being single can enrich your life

Married people, by contrast, have a greater tendency to be insular (as anyone who has ever lost a friend to a new relationship knows well).

When you’re single, you’re more likely to reap the serotonin boost that comes with everyday social interactions.

And this holds a profoundly positive impact on life expectancy.

The power of autonomy 

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Let’s turn now to a close neighbour of strong relationships: happiness.

Research shows that happiness not only leads to a higher quality of life, it can also prolong that life, too.

“We had expected that we might see a link between how happy people felt over the day and their future mortality, but we were struck by how strong the effect was,” says UCL psychology professor Andrew Steptoe, the lead author of a major study on the topic.

Read more: Solo travel gets rid of a major stressor

When we drill it down further, we see that autonomy is a key proponent of said happiness.

This makes sense when you think about it. Of course, we are all happier when we have a sense of control over our lives; whether that’s determining how we live or having freedom to perform our jobs properly (rather than being micro-managed).

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And – you guessed it – single people enjoy greater autonomy and personal growth than their married counterparts, according to research.

This autonomy is particularly important to women, who – historically and culturally – have seen their independence curtailed via marriage.

“I’ve always been a very, very independent person,” says skincare entrepreneur Linda Rodin. “I loved being in relationships with wonderful and really interesting men. I just never felt the need to marry them. I never felt convinced.”

Roll on, resilience

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There’s another level at play here, too: resilience.

Some experts are now coining resilience as the new happiness, because it’s solid, long-lasting and teaches us to bounce back (unlike happiness itself, which can be fleeting).

Read more: Why Japan is a dream destination for solo travellers

“We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define [ourselves]. In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal, something that comes from within,” says psychoanalytic theorist Matthew Bowker.

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“You have to have that capacity: the ability to know that you’re gonna survive, that you’re gonna be okay if you’re not supported by this group.”

When you live single, you’re more likely to cultivate this key element of grit and self-reliance.

A brave new world

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All of this is not to say that marriage is bad. You can be married and over-the-moon happy. You can be single and deeply sad.

But – contrary to conventional thinking – happiness is not defined by being hooked up or otherwise.

Read more: Being single makes you a brilliant solo traveller

And increasingly, living single promotes factors that actively promote wellbeing: from social ties to autonomy and greater resilience.

Just something to bear in mind the next time you get cornered by the infamous tilted head gaze…

Photos: Flash Pack and Shutterstock

 


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