The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Alone—Unhappy, Dissatisfied, and Unfulfilled

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

In the United States and Western Europe, more and more men and women live alone—a predictable pattern in an era when marriage rates have tumbled while divorce rates have remained stubbornly high. The not-so-surprising psychological consequences of this trend receive attention in a study recently published by geographer Christopher Deeming of the University of Bristol.

In order to identify the social circumstances most likely to foster positive “subjective well-being,” Deeming analyzes survey data collected by Great Britain’s Office for National Statistics since 2010. These data underscore the importance of household composition in determining how favorably men and women regard their lives.

In the first place, the single life often means the unhappy life. Deeming calculates that “the odds of single people living alone reporting ‘unhappiness’ are nearly 80 per cent greater than [for] people living together as a couple” (Odds Ratio of 1.77; p < 0.001).

Compared to peers living with a spouse, singles are not only less happy; they are also less satisfied with their lives. Deeming finds that those living as singles are almost three times as likely as those living as couples to report that they are “dissatisfied” with their lives (Odds Ratio of 2.79; p < 0.001).

The relative disadvantage suffered by singles shows up again when Deeming shifts his focus to life fulfillment. The researcher reports that men and women living as singles are almost three times as likely as
peers living with spouses to consider themselves “unfulfilled” (Odds Ratio of 2.64).

As he surveys his findings, Deeming expresses understandable concern about “the ‘new social risks’ of modern societies in the twenty-first century.” In particular, Deeming worries about “the growing numbers who live alone in Britain: a trend which shows little sign of abating.”  Since that same trend is evident in the United States, Americans have reason to attend to Deeming’s perception that, “generally speaking, living alone is not good for wellbeing as the study findings and a growing body of research evidence indicate.” Deeming is far too politically correct to acknowledge that cohabitation is a poor substitute for marriage. But he does see that “solo living often results in isolation from the privileges and obligations of cohabited (including married) life.”  Indeed, Deeming fears that many men and women living solo “lack a basic sense of belonging and security” in a world where “traditional forms of family and community life lose more and more of their meaning.”

As he confronts the ennui and world-weariness among men and women living as singles, Deeming urges policymakers “to place greater emphasis on the social” in their decisions. Deeming’s data would indeed indicate an urgent need to recover the “traditional forms of family and community life,” forms that provide a refuge from the desiccating modern forces of atomization and deracination.

(Christopher Deeming, “Addressing the Social Determinants of Subjective Wellbeing: The Latest Challenge for Social Policy,” Journal of Social Policy 42.3 [2013]: 541-65.)