New research says unmarried women without kids are happier — but is that actually the case?

Unmarried women without kids happily listening to music and enjoying a drink.

If you’re a single woman, chances are you’ve been asked at some point when you plan to “settle down,” get married, or have kids. The people making these comments often presume that the surefire formula to a happy life, especially for women, is made up of a stable marriage and family. But data about unmarried women without kids from a recent American Time Use Survey suggests the exact opposite.

Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, analyzed data from the survey (sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) that compared reported levels of pleasure and distress in individuals of all marital statuses for his book Happy Ever After. He found that, while married men in the U.S. were happier than unmarried men, women seemed happier if they didn’t get married or have kids.

“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,” Dolan said at the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in Wales in early June. If you’re a married man, 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.”

It’s a bold claim, but many unmarried, childfree women can attest to the benefits of their lifestyle. “I spent many years in my 20s wishing and praying it would happen for me,” says Collette McLafferty, a 45-year-old musician in New York City, referring to the traditional spouse-and-kids setup. “It wasn’t until my 30s that I realized I wanted it because society was telling me I had to be this way to be valuable.” She tells me that now, something about being legally bound to another human being freaks her out and that she loves the freedom of knowing she can make all decisions in her life for herself.

And then there are women who enjoy partnership without the formality. “I prefer to wake up next to [my partner] every day because I want to, not because I'm chained to him through a ring or a piece of paper,” says Kelsey Cole, a 30-year-old entrepreneur in Toronto. “We feel so free financially, knowing that we don't have the responsibilities of raising a child in our future. That allows us to take much bigger risks with our business and investments. We travel often, pick up and move when we want to, and don't have to think about the other lives that our choices will impact."

Some, though, have mixed feelings about not getting married and/or having children. “I certainly enjoy the freedom that comes with being unattached and not responsible for anyone besides myself. If I wanted to quit my job tomorrow and move, I could do it," says Heather Taylor, a 31-year-old communications coordinator in LA. “That being said, being on social media is increasingly becoming like navigating a minefield. It’s so full of engagements, marriages, and babies that it’s like a great, big, secret society everyone is part of and I’ve been declined for membership.”

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Of course, there are those women who love being married and having kids - and Dolan's assertions wouldn't sway their choices. Michelle Baxo, a 38-year-old relationship coach in Toronto, says she’s living her “dream come true” with her partner and daughter. “I was mostly happy when I was single, and it may seem like I was happier,” she says. “I went out more, I had multiple lovers, and I pretty much did whatever I wanted. But was I happy? Sometimes yes and sometimes no.” Baxo says that there was always a lingering sadness, in the background, about not having the family and partnership she truly desired. However, she adds, in order to maintain her happiness, she also needs plenty of time for her friends, her business, and activities like yoga.

Experts say — despite Dolan’s cited data — there isn’t any generalization you can make about what situation makes women happier because there is no one-size-fits-all (or even one-size-fits-most) for when it comes to contentment. However, research shows that both women and men tend to become less happy with their marriages over time, and women get more disillusioned with their marriages than men, says clinical psychologist Sherrie Campbell. “At best, women start marriage feeling a bit happier than being single, but as they stay married, their life goes back to being as satisfied or dissatisfied as before marriage,” she says. “Once a marriage ends, for whatever reason, women are much less likely than men to try it again.”

Culture also plays a part in the equation of whether people are happier with a traditional family structure. “There’s plenty of other research that supports parents in the U.S. are less happy than childless couples,” says Kathryn Stamoulis, a mental health counselor and adjunct professor at Hunter College in New York. This gap is much wider in the U.S. than other countries like England and Australia, and parents are actually happier than childfree couples in Norway (where there's a generous parental leave policy), she says. “Clearly, paid leave, access to childcare, and societal support make a big difference,” Stamoulis adds. Given this, it makes sense that women bear the brunt of the downsides of marriage and parenthood, since they’re expected to perform a disproportionate amount of childcare and household labor.

This was one reason Dana Todd, a 54-year-old startup founder in Chicago, never married. “When I compare the times in my life of being in relationships versus being single, those times when I'm truly fancy-free contain the giddiest highs,” she says. “The lowest times were in relationships. While each relationship was different, the common thread was that I couldn't really be myself, part of which is that I am very career-oriented.”

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Ultimately, the survey data that's inspiring bold headlines about women's happiness doesn't account for variables in these women's lifestyles—it instills the idea that they're one type of being across the board. Marriage is a social construct that will inevitably stretch and evolve just like women's societal roles do. To say that we've somehow broken the system and that women will no longer be happy with a spouse and kids is entirely too reductive.

“I think what will determine individual happiness is how much stress comes with each life change,” says Stamoulis. “Is marriage going to add more stress, responsibility, and burden to your life, or will it help lessen those things? Do you have financial resources and social support before having a child?”

In other words, the problem may not be with parenthood or marriage in general but with the stresses they come with in American society, especially for women. The women’s movement has made singlehood trendier, which is good in that it’s encouraging fewer women to settle for situations where they’re unhappy, says Campbell. But women who want the connection and stability of marriage should also have opportunities to find happiness within that.

If there’s any takeaway from Dolan’s findings worth shouting from the rooftop, it’s that the prescribed path is not necessarily one that brings universal happiness, says Stamoulis. And it's certainly cool that the traditional markers of success for women are being questioned. “If you don't want marriage or kids, great. You will likely have less stress in your life. If you want marriage or children, understand they come with stress and be cognizant of how you can manage and reduce the associated stressors.”