A recent BBC News article put forth a bold declaration: “Being single when you reach middle age could mean more than having the house to yourself; it could increase your risk of dementia.” Dr. Krister Hakansson, who led the study, said, “Living in a couple relationship is normally one of the most intense forms of social and intellectual stimulation. If social and cognitive challenges can protect against dementia, so should living as a couple.”
To me, this suggests that singles don’t have enough meaningful interaction or engagement in their lives. Sue Johnson, Director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and the author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, says, “Speaking of relationships in general like this is meaningless unless you take the quality of the connection.”
What if being single is actually good for you? What if the benefits of singledom match or exceed the benefits of marriage? Instead of assuming singles’ brains will melt if they don’t marry, perhaps we should focus more on the positives.
1. Know Thyself
When we’re single, we spend time alone. Some people can’t be alone, which may be a problem in itself, but certainly there are advantages to being by ourselves. If we’re never alone, when do we have time for self-reflection? How do we take on old hurts and issues and work them out? Think how generations of families stick in the same patterns of violence, abuse, and addiction. If we take time out to do some personal work, we’re more likely to break those patterns. When we’re alone, we have less distractions and more time to think—it’s simple math.
2. Entertain Thyself
Another advantage of having time alone is that we can pursue passions and interests we might not otherwise have time for. This is the number one complaint I hear from my coupled friends—I wish I had time for … that trip I always wanted to take, those guitar lessons, that photography contest, hanging out with my friends. Certainly traveling, playing musical instruments, creating art, and talking with friends provides meaningful cognitive stimulation. But are couples who barely talk to each other and space out in front of the TV every night more stimulated? Dr. Johnson says no. “Vegging in front of the TV with the other person sitting in the room is as stimulating as watching paint dry.”
3. Support Thyself
Single people have to take care of everything—balancing the checkbook, cleaning, shopping, paying taxes—whether we’re good at it or not. We have to make decisions about important things and live with the consequences. We have to develop our own lifestyles and figure out how to support ourselves. All of these things require constant reflection, thought, and assessment. I have a friend who’s terrible with money, but his wife is great with it, so she takes care of the finances. That’s wonderful, but in the end, he probably won’t ever learn how to handle money. In relationships, it’s only natural to share responsibilities, and it’s nice to let go of some things, but it doesn’t make us self-sufficient. If we go from relationship to relationship without ever being alone, we may never know if we can stand on our own two feet.
4. Love Thyself
Many people assume that singles aren’t into love or partnership, and while that can certainly be true, I would argue that many are heavily invested in romantic love. Sasha Cagen, creator of the Web site QuirkyAlone for “deeply single” people, says, “For the quirkyalone, there is no patience for dating just for the sake of not being alone. We want a miracle. Out of millions, we have to find the one who will understand.” The more time we spend alone, the more we’ll realize what we want and don’t want in a partner. For me, love is everything, but I would rather wait for the one instead of anyone. Sue Johnson agrees: “Knowing that you can stand alone and finding that you are good company for yourself probably gives you more judgment when it comes to finding a partner—you don’t feel so driven to find ‘anyone’; you reflect more.”
5. Take Care of Thyself
In “The Health Benefits of Being Single,” author Lisa Lombardi reveals that single women stay slimmer than their married counterparts do. Singles get more sleep (and don’t have to share a bed!), have lower blood pressure, less stress, lower rates of depression, and stronger immune systems.
Cultivating friendships is also good for our health. Singletons spend more time with significant others—rather than one “other.” Studies have shown that not staying connected with friends has negative side effects similar to high blood pressure, obesity, and even smoking.
As Dr. Sue Johnson reminds us, even if the BBC study produced factual data, the conclusion could be wrong. “If folks in relationships don’t get dementia, it might be because they simply remind each other to take their vitamins.”