The “woman of a certain age” without a husband or children has been the subject of pity for many generations.
But it seems that sympathy may be misguided – according to a “happiness expert”, unmarried and childless women are one of the happiest subgroups in the population.
Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics and author of Happiness by Design, spoke on the topic at the Hay Festival in Wales over the weekend.
He told the audience current research shows the traditional hallmarks of “success” for women don’t actually correlate with happiness. In particular, being married and raising children.
He also cited research that shows unmarried, childless women are likely to live longer. Statistics show that women, especially middle-aged married women, are at a higher risk of developing physical conditions and mental illnesses than their single counterparts.
In Professor Dolan’s latest book Happy Ever After, he looks at findings from the American Time Use Survey, which compared levels of pleasure and misery in unmarried, married, divorced, separated and widowed people.
“Married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they’re asked how happy they are,” explained Professor Dolan, as per The Guardian.
“When the spouse is not present: f–king miserable.”
In the study, unmarried people reported lower levels of misery than married individuals when they were asked about their happiness when their spouse was out of earshot.
“The healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children,” he said.
Professor Dolan also pointed out that married men tended to be happier than married women.
He said men tended to benefit from marriage as they “calmed down”.
“Men take less risks, you earn more money at work and you live a little longer … She, on the other hand, has to put up with that and dies sooner than if she never married,” he said.
“We do have some good longitudinal data following the same people over time, but I am going to do a massive disservice to that science and just say: If you’re a man, you should probably get married; If you’re a woman, don’t bother.”
He also said many people lived with the uncomfortable truth that sometimes parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“It would be categorically awful if anything happened to [our offspring], but the experiences we have with children are largely miserable,” he said.
“For some people, having children is great. But for a lot of people it isn’t, and the idea that we can’t talk openly about why that might be is a problem.”
He went on to quote an academic colleague who “said that he liked the existence of his children but not their presence”.
The chicken-egg-unhappiness cycle
Despite the benefits of a single, childless lifestyle for women, Professor Dolan said the existing “conventional” notion that marriage and children were signs of success meant that the stigma could lead some single women to feel unhappy.
“You see a single woman of 40, who has never had children – ‘Bless, that’s a shame, isn’t it? Maybe one day you’ll meet the right guy and that’ll change’,” he said.
“No, maybe she’ll meet the wrong guy and that’ll change. Maybe she’ll meet a guy who makes her less happy and healthy, and die sooner.”
During his sessions at Hay Festival, Professor Dolan also noted the assumption that getting a higher education and earning a bigger income leads to happiness isn’t necessarily true.
According to The Telegraph, he said many people would actually be happier with a vocational course and an average income.
“I’m not suggesting that people don’t strive for wealth and success and education. What I’m suggesting is, it’s not for everybody all of the time,” he said.