May 31, 2019

New book says single, childless women are happier and live longer


Breaking news: it is possible for women to be happy without a husband or children!

To many, that might seem bloody obvious. But as a woman myself I can confirm the expectations to settle down and baby-up come from everywhere: media, society, friends, family.

Could it be that science has finally come to the rescue to prove the true secret of happiness for women? Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, writes in his new book Happy Ever After, published by Allen Lane, that women are happier without children or a spouse, citing evidence from the American Time Use Survey. Speaking at the Hay Festival last weekend, he said, as reported by the Guardian:

“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.”

Men benefited from marriage because they “calmed down,” he said. “You 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. The healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children.”

There has been some backlash to the findings. Shane Watson (she/her) wrote a pithily headlined article “Unmarried women are happiest—but here are 13 reasons why it’s better to have a husband” for right-wing newspaper The Telegraph, the first sentence being “More bad news for men.” Poor, persecuted men. I better be going and getting myself one of those husbands, quick-smart. Watson is the author of How to Meet a Man After Forty and Other Midlife Dilemmas Solved. Her author bio by her publisher, Penguin, reads:

Shane Watson is an author, journalist and Sunday Times columnist who met and married a man in her forties. She is, in other words, the statistic-defying exception to the rule; a beacon of hope for single women in the thirty-five-plus category who want to find Mr Right and not just Mr Gigantic Compromise.

I mean, phew. Here I was thinking I was happy but luckily Watson is here to point out that we all can find Mr Right, even if we’re old! Dolan must be wrong when he said:

 “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.’ 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.”

According to Suzanne Venker at the Washington Examiner, all women want is to get married and have kids, and dumb Millennials who buck the trend are harming their own happiness:

Millennials are the first generation of women to postpone marriage and motherhood and to instead pile up degree upon degree that would make them more marketable and theoretically help them get established for marriage but instead dealt them a cruel blow: now they’re in debt and can’t afford to get married.

Millennials were told they were special but learned that they aren’t. They were told they don’t need a man but learned that they do. They were told that children will hold them back but discovered that children are precisely what they want. In fact, family is all they really want.

The Catholic New Agency also, surprisingly, pushes the family and marriage angle and slams Dolan’s research. According to them:

In data from the General Social Survey between 2010-2018, analyzed by [William Brad] Wilcox and researcher Nicholas Wolfinger, married women between the ages of 18 and 50 reported significantly higher rates of happiness than their divorced, separated, or single and never married counterparts.

Professor Wilcox works for the Institute for Family Studies whose mission “is to strengthen marriage and family life, and advance the well-being of children through research and public education.” A stark reminder that statistics are not always objective according to whom wields them.

It is worth saying that all the opinion pieces and research appear to only really play to a heteronormative view. As Megan Nolan wrote for the i paper:

I would be really interested to see similar long range data specifically focused on how women in alternative family set ups fare with their happiness. Would being in a queer relationship and family alter a woman’s satisfaction at all? What would happen if you could explode the nuclear unit and reconsider what a family can be?

It may seem like an impossible task to re-imagine the family so radically, but is it any more extreme than accepting that women must be miserable in order to have one?

Lives and families are complex. Are childless women secretly longing for babies to make them truly happy? Should women be embracing tips to meet their future husbands past forty if they’re unfortunate enough to still be single? Are all women happier when single and childless? There is no right or wrong here, surely. That would be much too simplistic. But there definitely is something to be said about patriarchal society’s views on gender roles and expectations. Maybe avoiding marriage and motherhood will make some women happier, maybe not. It sure helps to sell books though.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.