On the most romantic, couple-y, love heart-ridden day of the year, it might seem cynical to turn our thoughts to the benefits of being alone. But here we are, thinking about it nonetheless.
Writing for The Guardian this week, Priyamvada Gopal questioned the way ‘coupledom’ is held up by society as the most desirable way to live, particularly when the statistics tell us otherwise. She points out that, contrary to the mythology, marriage and a monogamous relationship is not a one way ticket to happiness.
“Resisting the consolidation of invidious forms of social exclusion,” she writes, “it’s time to get beyond the notion that yoking together love, coupling, marriage and reproduction is the only way to achieve happiness. The scare stories about single people dying earlier or loneliness becoming a pandemic must be seen in the larger context of a social order that is hostile to non-couples and an economic order to which the collective good seems to be anathema. Our own imaginations – and hearts – can come up with better.”
Living alone does not, of course, automatically equal loneliness – nor does it preclude having some kind of intimate, ongoing relationship. What it does mean is space, autonomy and independence – Virginia Woolf’s legendary ‘room of one’s own‘ comes to mind. Australia’s last census revealed a significant rise in people living alone, with 1.9 million Australians, or 1 in 10, now living alone. And statistics show that the countries with the highest levels of people living alone – around 60% – are Scandinavian countries, the happiest countries in the world, which consistently top the OECD Better Life Index.
There are many reasons people are living alone more now than ever before. Women’s liberation and the attainment of financial autonomy means women can, for the first time in history, support themselves, buy their own homes and choose to leave an unhappy marriage, or simply not marry at all. At the same time, urbanisation and the communication revolution mean we live in societies of increased connectivity – you can be sitting on your couch at home while you phone, Skype or message somebody, or you can go out into the streets in cities of people who increasingly live alone, together. The other contributing factor is increased life expectancy, making it common for one partner to live alone years after the loss of their spouse.
Erik Klinenberg’s book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone argues that these factors make living alone and loneliness very distinct things:
“When I got deeper into the research, I realized that, in fact, only a small number of people who are living alone are actually isolated, or lonely,” he says. “In fact, people who live alone tend to spend more time socializing with friends and neighbours than people who are married…Living alone is not an entirely solitary experience. It’s generally a quite social one.”
With that in mind, and because we’re not complete cynics, here are some adorable children grappling with the concept of love, in honour of Valentine’s Day.