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The Keys to a Satisfying Single Life

Necessities, luxuries, and meeting sexual needs.

Key points

  • Previous research found that family relationships, friendships, and meeting sexual needs are the keys to a satisfying single life.
  • But new research suggests that happy singles don’t rely on family and friends to meet their relationship needs any more so than other people.
  • Single people can have satisfying lives as long as their sexual and romantic needs can be met without a regular partner.

Many people see the key to a happy life as finding a fulfilling life partner to share it with. Around the world, we see people partnering up in long-term relationships as the norm. In modern Western culture, people tend to seek out their soulmate, the one person to complement them, to make them whole. But even when people settle for simple compatibility, there’s still the assumption that they’d be happier living with another than spending their life unpartnered and alone.

However, as University of Toronto psychologists Yoobin Park and Geoff MacDonald point out, marriage rates are declining around the world and the average age of marriage is increasing. If we’re happier when partnered, this suggests that there must be a lot of unhappy singles out there.

And yet, one recent survey found that half of those not currently in a relationship weren’t even looking for one. This suggests that at least some singles find their lives fulfilling enough that they don’t feel the need for a long-term partner to share it with.

What then makes for a satisfying single life? This is the question that Park and MacDonald explored in a study they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

The Keys to a Satisfying Single Life

Previous research has shown that family relationships, friendships, and an active sex life are the keys to satisfying singlehood. In other words, happy singles find ways to get their relational and sexual needs met through a variety of people rather than depending on a soulmate. But what still isn’t understood is the relative priority that happy singles give to each of these and other life domains.

To answer this question, Park and MacDonald used what’s known as a budget allocation task. This procedure is commonly used in relationship science to assess the relative importance that people place on various characteristics in a mate. For instance, respondents could be given a certain amount of points to allocate among several categories, such as looks, finances, education, and mental health. While they may say that all of these are important, we can see the ranked importance of these traits by how many points they allocate to each.

Furthermore, the budget allocation task allows researchers to tease out “necessities” from “luxuries” by varying the size of the budget. In a low-budget condition, most of the points should go to necessities, but in a high-budget condition, the points allocated to necessities should stay about the same, while allocations to luxuries should increase.

Necessities and Luxuries

In the current study, the researchers asked singles to allocate a given number of points among eight domains generally recognized as important for a fulfilling life: family relationships, friendships, leisure, mental health, physical health, romance, sex, and work/education. They performed the task twice, once with a low budget and a second time with a high budget, to tease out necessities from luxuries.

Three domains emerged as most important in the low-budget condition: mental health, physical health, and family. But in the high-budget condition, these emerged as necessities, in that the respondents didn’t allocate significantly more mate dollars to them. Instead, leisure, friendships, romance, and sex emerged as luxuries.

There were some gender and age differences. For instance, men weighted sex more heavily in both the low- and the high-budget conditions, while women allocated more to physical health and family relationships in the low- and high-budget conditions respectively. Likewise, older singles placed less emphasis on sex and romance and more on physical health.

The Difference Between Happy and Unhappy Singles

An even more important difference emerged between happy and unhappy singles. Specifically, unhappy singles budgeted more points to sex and romance than did those that were happy. This finding is important because it sheds light on the previous finding that singles are happy as long as they’re satisfied with their family relationships, friendships, and sex lives.

People vary considerably in how much value they place on sex and romance in their lives. What the current data suggest is that people can be happy as singles if their sexual and romantic needs can be met without a regular partner. However, those singles who feel a need for more romance and sex than they’re currently getting may be happier if they could find a regular partner.

The study also shows the relative importance of family relationships and friendships in a satisfying single life. Until now, psychologists had assumed that happy singles rely more on friends and family to meet their relational needs than partnered people do. But these data suggest instead that family and friends provide a baseline level of support for singles just as they do for coupled persons, and no more.

In sum, single life may be satisfying for some people, although it’s certainly not a good fit for most. If your sexual and romantic needs are low, such that you can fulfill them without a regular partner, then the single life may be a good fit for you. The happy singles in this study tend to place more emphasis on occupation or leisure, or else on physical and mental health, and the single life gives them the time and freedom to pursue these goals.

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Park, Y. & MacDonald, G. (2022). Necessities and luxuries in satisfying single lives. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/02654075221122887

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