Saturday, July 10, 2021


 Being single is a perfectly ordinary feature of life, but people will believe the most looney things imaginable about it. Take, for instance, David Robson's How to Enjoy Being Single, in Psyche; while not all of it is bad, much of it is completely useless nonsense, based on a poor understanding of what happiness actually is. It is indeed true that people's self-reported contentment is largely the same whether they are in relationships or not; you are who you are, and that only changes by cultivation, not by shacking up or wedding bells. It is also true that, while not unimportant, how you feel about your life is the least important component of living the good life, a fact you will never learn from uncritical acceptance of loose psychological studies.

We get this sort of absurdity:

‘Not having a romantic partner at the centre of our lives does not limit our lives, it throws the doors wide open,’ Bella DePaulo, a social scientist affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of the book Singled Out (2004), told me. ‘Now, instead of prioritising one person by default, we can decide for ourselves who really matters to us, and live accordingly.’

No, being single doesn't 'throw the doors wide open' in comparison with having a romantic partner, because most of your choices will be much the same regardless; no, it doesn't mean you can decide for yourself 'who really matters' to you, since that is mostly determined by other things, including your ethical obligations; no, being single doesn't automatically mean that you are not prioritizing one person by default -- many single persons do this, just not with a romantic partner.

Thus the foundations for the advice are not well-conceived to begin with, although they do draw on pedestrian cliches despite the pretense of being daring proposals for a new way of looking at things. But some of the advice itself is downright toxic. The article proposes the made-up concept of 'singlism' which, of course, is prejudice against single people on the model of 'racism' or 'sexism', no less, and says "Defy singlism." What is the extraordinary violation of the human dignity of singles?

Many of the challenges of being single come from other people. From intrusive family conversations about your love life to formal invitations encouraging you to bring a ‘plus one’, single people face constant reminders that they’re veering from the accepted life script. DePaulo calls this ‘singlism’ and, like all other prejudices, it can be mentally exhausting to confront on a daily basis.

As someone who does quite well being single, let me offer my counter-advice: This is an ordinary human interaction, accept it as the nice gesture it is. Formal invitations involve a 'plus one' because you are the one invited, but you are welcome to bring someone else if you like. It is a nice courtesy even if you choose not to act on it, which you are perfectly free not to do. If you find it "mentally exhausting" to deal with people who think you important enough to invite you to a major event but decide to leave room just in case you might have someone you want to bring (which in fact doesn't even have to be a romantic partner), it is not because they are singlist but because you are being irrational. If you find ordinary human interaction mentally exhausting on a daily basis, see a professional counselor or buy a cabin in the woods. Later in the article, we get a causal mention of "As a single person, given the sense of social judgment and prejudice that you likely have to contend with on a daily basis". Not just mentally exhausted, but with a "sense of social judgment and prejudice" on a daily basis, and what is worse, you are likely to have it! No, you are not likely to have it or to be dealing with it on a daily basis. It is not something hordes of singles experience "on a daily basis". If you end up having it, there is a specific cause for it, and that specific cause is not that you are being persecuted.

But the discussion gets worse a little later:

From his own interviews and data analyses, Kislev has found that a greater awareness of ‘singlism’ – and the accompanying social pressure to ‘couple’ – as a common, shared experience can itself have a positive influence on wellbeing. Lauri, a single woman quoted in Kislev’s book, captures the sentiment best: ‘Realising that I wasn’t nuts for recognising singlism and matrimania in the world, I actually feel better about myself and paint a clearer picture of things.’

Singlism and matrimania, how horrible to live in a world in which people think being responsible for the survival, social development, and future of the human race is important. You have only to look around to see that anyone who thinks that our society is obsessed with marriage is delusional. It gets even worse, because so far it has mostly just been silly, if a little offensive in the suggestion that supposed (and, judging from the examples given, mostly imaginary) prejudices against being single are fit to be put in the same kind of category as racial or sexual injustice. The next turn is actively toxic: "Unfortunately, because few single people are consciously aware of ‘singlism’, the stigma can become internalised, so they feel like there really is something ‘wrong’ with them." It just gets slipped in there. A stigma is a mark of dishonor or disgrace. Someone asking you if you have a boyfriend or girlfriend yet is not a 'stigma'; they are treating you like a person whose life is worth knowing. Someone teasing you about still being single is not a 'stigma'; they are being comfortable enough with you to kid around. For that matter, someone being a complete jackass about it is not a 'stigma'; jackassery happens over almost everything. If you were under a stigma, people would shun you for the bare fact of being single; if you are having any of these problems, your singleness is not a stigma. Let me again offer my counter-insight here. If you feel like there really is something wrong with you because you are single, it is not because you have internalized any 'stigma'; it is almost certainly because you keep insisting on doing something that is not working for you, and thus are driving yourself into the ground sabotaging yourself. My advice is (and this will knock your socks off with its ingenuity): Try doing something else.

In any case, the toxic advice gets even worse:

You might need to apply conscious effort to question your own beliefs and to reject the false assumptions that are so widespread in our societies. Based on his research, Kislev argues that the happiest singles will often actively challenge the prejudice that they encounter in other people. ‘They must fight creatively and individually against discriminatory practices,’ he writes in Happy Singlehood. These acts of defiance, Kislev says, can be personally energising and empowering.

Yes, this is the sort of thing people say when they are trying to sell their quack moral medicines. Don't fall for the patented snake oil nostrum. Do not go around imagining yourself the victim of the evil of other people around you. It will not make you happier, but it will definitely poison your interactions with other people. You are not oppressed by their prejudice, and, if the examples given in the article are typical of what is being counted as 'prejudice', there is probably no prejudice at all. Acts of defiance probably would make you feel better; people who imagine themselves persecuted do generally feel better after acts of defiance, but it's because imagining yourself to be persecuted is a very miserable kind of life to begin with, so almost anything to disrupt the misery feels good. If you spend your life making yourself miserable, it probably will feel great to pick fights with people. It's still not the life you want. Rather, here's an alternative: be pleasant to other people. It's not the highest virtue, by any means, but you aren't actually facing anything that requires, or even provides a real occasion for, righteous indignation, so it won't kill you not to fight other people. Turning every interaction into a quarrel is not the path to happiness.

I was greatly amused, however, by the comments about 'singlism' in fiction. After an entire article in which the only specific examples given are of women, and which treats singles as depressed, unfulfilled, and desperate for romance -- I mean, the whole premise of the article is that singles are 'internalizing' an actual stigma arising from a pervasive and misery-causing prejudice against being single -- we are told:

Other writers, unfortunately, are much lazier, and simply replicate the existing prejudices without judgment, portraying singles who are depressed, unfulfilled and desperate for romance. Sadly, this is especially true for female protagonists.

Much lazier, indeed; sadly, indeed.

Gather round, children, and let me tell you what the secret to happiness as a single is: Seek virtue, cherish friends and family, honor marriage, and let everything else take care of itself in its own way. If you are miserable about being single, there are only two likely reasons why. Either you are making it all about yourself, which it is not, or you are sabotaging yourself in some way.