Every day, we’re bombarded with clichés and unsolicited life advice from bumper stickers and Instagram posts like, “you can’t love someone else until you first love yourself,” or “happiness comes from within.” These all seemed like exactly that: clichés and unsolicited life advice, until my first big teenage breakup that sent me on a soul-searching saga, Eat, Pray, Love style.
After many cartons of Ben & Jerry’s and a few more times watching P.S., I Love You than I care to admit, something funny happened. I became more confident in myself than I ever had been before. I figured out where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to study. I laughed harder with my friends and had more fun. It was the first time it hit me: a relationship does not (and should not) make you happier.
In 2016 (a couple of years after my post-breakup enlightenment), Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, went through 814 studies of single and married people and found that being single has many benefits. Even studies agree with my young adult findings; living out your real-life season of The Bachelorette won’t get you any closer to happiness.
The good news is that true fulfillment happens internally, so you don’t need to find love to love your life. Here’s why:
Relationships will not change the way you feel about yourself
Often, we want to be in relationships to feel better about ourselves and hope to fix insecurities by getting validation from someone else. However, thinking you’re lovable as long as you’re loved is a false sense of security. It’s the tale as old as time, the cliché of all clichés: we accept the love we think we deserve. In other words, we attract people based on how we feel about ourselves.
Even if you do find someone who happens to be wonderful, it won’t change how you feel about yourself. You won’t magically feel prettier or better at your job because you have a significant other. Low self-esteem doesn’t go away just because you changed your relationship status on Facebook.
Depending on your partner for happiness can cause a toxic relationship
Don’t get me wrong: you deserve someone who wants to tend to your happiness intentionally and consistently. But feeling good when you’re with your partner and depending on your partner to feel good are two separate things; feeling happy in your relationship means you’re sharing love, while depending on your relationship for happiness means you’re demanding love.
No one person can provide everything you need to be happy, and expecting them to might result in pressure, controlling behavior, jealousy, insecurity, etc. Love should bring happiness, but your mental health shouldn’t be dependent on it. Seeking mutual support and love in your relationship instead of dependency will free your partner of unfair responsibility and toxic pressure.
You’re more likely to develop and grow as an individual if you’re single
Back to DePaulo’s 2016 study (because even love and romance comes down to science), the single people analyzed were more likely to grow as individuals. According to the study, single people have heightened self-determination and are more likely to experience “a sense of continued growth and development as a person.”
You know that friend who went to law school or backpacked through Europe after a bad breakup? It’s not simply an emotional crisis (though that might be part of it); it’s because not having to think of another person snaps you into the reality of what you want. Of course, you can still develop and grow as an individual, no matter who you’re with or what stage of life you’re in (FYI: a relationship doesn’t necessarily hinder personal development, either. In fact, the right one should help you grow), but rest assured that if you are single, now is the time to focus on the goals you want for your career, health, and life, before someone else and their plans come into the picture.
Relationships do not fill voids
Sometimes we crave relationships in an attempt to fill certain voids or distract ourselves from difficult emotions. If you’re dating because you’re lonely, a relationship will not make you feel any more “whole” (and could even make you feel worse). Here’s the truth: loneliness and unhappiness do not go away with distractions, and a relationship is not the solution to fix problems you’ve had in your past. The right partner will not be your happily ever after; they will simply be your plus one to an already happy life.
What Actually Will Make You Happy…
Learning to love your alone time
No matter if you’re introverted or extroverted, you should appreciate the time you have by yourself. This sounds equally cheesy and depressing, but I love being at home, watching reruns of Vanderpump Rules for the tenth time, and cooking dinner for one. I also genuinely enjoy taking myself out for brunch, (as Jason Derulo would say) ridin’ solo. Trust me, I am not as socially inept as I sound, but I do appreciate being alone (I can eat whatever I want, watch whatever I want, and do whatever I want. What’s not to love!?). Value your time by yourself as you would with any friend and it will cultivate self-love.
Meeting your inner child
I read once that what we love as children is truly what makes us happy, and we just unlearn who we are when we become adults. Depressing, yes, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Do you remember how you spent Saturdays as a little kid? Did you play soccer in the backyard, lock your door and devour the latest Harry Potter book, go camping in the backyard with your siblings, or watch cartoons in your pajamas? I spent 100 percent of my free time dressing up Barbies and making up stories with my mom at the kitchen table. 20 or so years later, here I am as your resident Fashion Features Manager and writer for The Everygirl. Childhood interests are telling, no?
If you’re not pursuing your childhood hobbies as a career (how many of us can be soccer stars or Harry Potter characters?), think about how you can bring those interests back into your life. Can you join an intramural flag football team or start scrapbooking? Spend more time doing activities that make you truly happy, instead of passing time with work, obligations, and staring at screens.
Knowing your happiness is your job
How freeing is it to know that we are in control of our happiness? Take responsibility for how you feel about your life. If you’re not happy, assess all areas like career, home environment, hobbies, health, and relationships with family and friends. Identify the areas you feel unsatisfied with and make concrete changes. Unhappy with your familiar relationships? Call your mom more often, and plan dinner with your sister. Unhappy with your job? Read this.
Addressing and understanding difficult emotions
We often long for relationships to mask negative emotions like sadness, loneliness, and lack of self-esteem. But these feelings can teach us how we are stuck and what we need to improve in our lives. Feel OK with the discomfort of these emotions, and work on fixing the emotion at the root instead of distracting yourself from it with a relationship. Identify what needs improvement in your life, readjust how you see negative emotions, and find a therapist if you need outside help.
Focusing on gratitude with what you have, not lack of what you don’t
Happiness is a state of mind, not something that happens to us. It’s not dependent on life situations or who comes into our lives. At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker or Instagram post, gratitude will change your happiness. Focus on what you do have rather than wanting what you don’t, and your perspective will shift into that of abundance instead of lack. Whether you’re single, dating, in a LTR, gratitude will help pursue the lifestyle that brings out the best in you, instead of depending on someone else to make you happy.