It can be hard to be single at this time of year. When the holidays roll around, it can seem as though you’re being deluged in reminders that everyone else is in a relationship and you’re not.
It can leave you feeling like you’re the last person on Earth who isn’t coupled up… and that’s an incredibly lonely feeling.
But there’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. The fact that you’re single doesn’t mean that you have to be miserable. Learning how to be single without letting it destroy you or corrode your soul may well be one of the most important skills you can learn.
Stop Looking To Relationships To Define You
One of the most important things you can do when you’re single – whether it’s by choice or not – is to stop letting your relationships define your worth as a person.
Now I will be the first to admit: this is damned hard. We live in a culture that not only lionizes couples but tends to pathologize single people. You can’t toss a rock without bouncing it off at least three movies where the single leads are told that not being in a relationship is hurting them in some way. Men get taught that not being in a relationship is a sign they’re not an adult yet. Women get taught that being interested in things other than dating will leave them lonely spinsters until it’s too late.
But the fact of the matter is that societal programming is just that: programming. It’s something that’s taught to us as being true, regardless of whether there’s anything to it. You are the exact same person in a relationship as you are when you’re not in one.
Letting your self-worth be defined by something that’s not just external but relies on factors that can be entirely outside of your control is a recipe for madness. Just as traditional masculinity becomes something so fragile that chapstick can destroy it, basing your self-worth on being in a relationship makes your value so delicate that it’s virtually impossible to maintain. Your relationship goes from two people who care for one another to constant arbitrage on your worth as a person.
Even being single for a long period of time has nothing to do with how worthy or desirable you are. There are an almost infinite number of reasons why someone may be single, many of which have nothing to do with them. Sometimes it’s a matter of socialization, presentation or a shitty attitude. Other times, as many a queer kid can tell you, it can as random and arbitrary as living in the wrong part of the world. In the words of Jean Luc Picard: it is possible to commit no errors and still lose.
The fact that you don’t have – or have never had – a relationship is data, not value. It says as much about your worth or value as whether you have a driver’s license or not. It’s one part of the continuum of who you are, not the totality of it.
Yes, there’s social pushback. There are people out there who will cheerfully judge you for being single. These people are assholes, and life is too short to give a choleric rat’s fart about their opinions.
You’re defined by what you do and what you bring to the table, not how many times you’ve bumped uglies with someone. And that’s why the first step in being successfully single is to be cultivating a life worth living.
Find Your Passions
Here’s the thing about the most socially successful people: they’re interesting. They have things going on in their lives that give them meaning and inspiration. Yeah, their job may not be the most glamorous. They may not have the fattest bank accounts, the trimmest waists or the most symmetrical face, but they have that thing that makes them magnetic. There’s a certainty and drive to them that most people just don’t have.
They’ve connected with their passion. They have something in their life that pushes and motivates them. Find someone with passion and you’ll find someone who will come alive when you talk to them about their favorite topic. They’re a person who lives life to its fullest. Is it something you might find as inspiring? Possibly not – but the sheer energy they bring is compelling all of its own.
But the important thing about passion isn’t how attractive it makes you, it’s what your passion gives you. Passion gives you energy. It pushes you. It drives you. The guy who’s always talking about his novel has no passion. The passionate writer, on the other hand, is cranking out page after page each day. Are they all golden paragraphs, dripping with wit and wisdom? No, of course not… but they’re still being written. The greatness will come in time.
Finding, connecting and living with your passion is important because of the satisfaction it brings. That passion is part of what makes life worth living, not something just to be endured.
It’s important to note, however, there’s a difference between passion and addiction. They’re both compulsions, true, but the difference is how it makes you feel. Passion energizes you while addictions control you. That feel you get from getting lost in an amazing book or the thrill of mastering a difficult chord makes you feel like you’ve leveled up. Playing Candy Crush even when you don’t understand why you keep going back to it, on the other hand, is an addiction. Mindless repetition isn’t passion. Passion engages you. It’s not about filling the empty hours and distracting you from the cold empty void, it’s about doing the things that make you feel alive like nothing else does.
Your passion doesn’t need to be your job, nor does your job need to be your passion. But having passion in your life can mean the difference between existing and living. To quote Hemingway: “Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the Romance of the unusual.”
Count Your Blessings
One of the hardest things to do when you’re feeling like a loser is to stop and appreciate what you do have. It’s understandable; our brains have an inherent negativity bias. Negative thoughts and emotions have literally five times the impact that positive thoughts and experiences do. It takes a lot to overcome those.
But that’s also why it’s so damn important to take the time to appreciate what you do have. That irrational guilt and shame you feel about being single wears on your body and soul. It becomes the weight that keeps dragging you under, no matter what you do.
Taking time to find the things you’re grateful for, on the other hand, cuts the rope to those weights. This doesn’t mean just engaging in saccharine exercises in “Find the good side of anything”, it means that you actually take a long hard look at your life and find the good in it. And to pre-empt the Eeyores in the audience, yes you do have things to be grateful for. The fact that you’re able to read this column alone means you have advantages that people would otherwise commit bloody murder to get. You may not have a lot, but you can turn it into more than it seems.1
Taking time to be grateful isn’t just about realizing that life isn’t completely shit though. It has legitimate, quantifiable benefits. To start with, practicing gratitude boosts dopamine and serotonin production in your brain, making it a natural antidepressant. It also helps cultivate the habit of thinking positively and adjusting your overall attitude – making you happier and more pleasant to be around. Expressing that gratitude to the people you’re grateful to have in your life also does a lot to spread happiness to others in your social circle. Spreading that happiness to others can be important because it creates a reciprocal effect; the happier your friends are, the happier you become. The happier you are, the more you enjoy your life – single or not.
Which is why a little selfish selflessness can be critical. Confused? Well…
Give More (To Get More)
One of the paradoxes of happiness and satisfaction in life is that giving of your time benefits you more in the long run than the people you’re giving to. This is one of the reasons why volunteering your time to help others can be an important part of living a happy single life.
One of the reasons why so many of us feel lonely and unfulfilled is because of how much of our lives revolve around intangibles. We move through life with little to show for it besides carefully curated posts on our social media accounts. It’s all ephemera; moving around data and shuffling bits here and numbers there. Our contributions get lost in the churn and we’re left feeling like faceless automatons; nameless cogs in an uncaring machine that grinds on inexorably without even noticing us.
That disconnect – from others, from our work, from everything – is part of why we all feel so lonely and empty.
Taking time to give back however, helps change the equation. Volunteering your time and presence gives you something concrete that you can point to. Yeah, you’re not the most important person in the world but you’ve been taking care of your corner of it. You have done something that you know has made the world a little brighter, a little happier and a little better for others. It may be as noticeable as helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity. It may be something as small and seemingly inconsequential as walking dogs at your local no-kill shelter. You may just be helping serve rice and stew at your local soup kitchen. The point is that you made somebody’s life better – and that’s a feeling that can’t be beat.
Volunteering and giving to others helps you connect with other people and gives you an unalloyed good in your life. It may have selfish origins, but it pays you back immensely. No matter how much your life may feel like a pit of unending despair, those good deeds can be a bright spark in the darkness.
And that can be crucial for making your life better because…
The Love of Your Life May Be The Love Of Your Life
There’s a quote from RuPaul that’s fairly popular in self-improvement circles:
Now, as with any bit of wisdom you can fit on a bumper sticker, this gets interpreted in a number of ways. At its core, however, is a valid question: if you don’t have any love for your life, why would others want to share it with you? Being in a relationship isn’t magic; it doesn’t transform you from Dr. Jekyll to Sexy, Popular Hyde. If your life isn’t satisfying you right now, dating someone isn’t going to change that. It’s the same, shitty life, just with company. It doesn’t even necessarily keep you from being lonely – married couples are just as prone to loneliness as single people.
A relationship isn’t a magical cure-all, nor is it something that should it be treated as one. Relationships aren’t something that complete your life, they complement it. A romantic relationship is best – and has the best chances at success – when it’s a part of an amazing life, not the cornerstone of it. By having an amazing life, you have something that’s worth sharing. That’s why one of the most important things you can do, especially when you’re single, is to invest in yourself.
Put the time and sweat equity into building a life you can be happy with, whether you’re single or not. Find the things that fulfil your soul and bring you joy and let them be the center of your being. Love your life.
Get that sorted and everything else will fall into place.
- Let’s see who gets this. [↩]