Some people just can’t be happy unless they’re in a relationship. They chase, seek and create a romantic connection as if it’s the very force that holds the world on its axis. On the other hand, there are those who seem to only thrive out of a relationship in a sort of romantic minimalist lifestyle. Such people create friction, problems and irreconcilable differences that bust up every love connection. What’s the difference between those who thrive in relationships and those who don’t? And for those who function best in the world of romantic disconnect, are they doomed to be unhappy (as popular theory and much empirical research suggests)? A recent study found that the difference in thriving and level of happiness in or out of a relationship depends on whether or not you’re driven by approach or avoidance social goals.
Happiness in a relationship
New data published in Social Psychological and Personality Science proves that assuming single people are less happy is incredibly relative. It turns out that if you’re driven by avoidance social goals you’re actually just as happy out of a relationship as approach-goal-oriented people are in one.
“It’s a well-documented finding that single people tend to be less happy compared to those in a relationship, but that may not be true for everyone,” explains lead researcher Yuthika Girme, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Single people also can have satisfying lives.”
The study’s research shows compelling evidence as to why this is true. Collating a nationally representative sample of responses from 4,000 New Zealand participants (ranging from 18 to 94 years old) the study sought to determine for whom, exactly, being in a relationship or single enhanced or undermined a sense of wellbeing. With 20% of participants engaged in long-lasting (on average 22 years) relationships researchers tested the extent to which social goals influenced the link between relationship status and both daily and across-time life satisfaction. What they discovered is that people with high avoidance social goals were just as happy outside of a relationship as those with high approach social goals were in one.
The explanation for this is very logical: According to Girme, trying too hard to avoid relationship conflicts increases stress both on the individual and the relationship. The effects of that stress can increase anxiety and a sense of disconnection, both of which contribute to lower life satisfaction.
Approach versus avoidance
Spotting the disparity between approach and avoidance social goals happens easily when you know what to look for:
People with approach oriented social goals desire to create, maintain and sustain relationships that promote intimacy and growth as a couple. Avoidance social goals represent a person’s desire to avoid relationship disagreements and conflict.
Traditionally speaking, approach goals are defined as those objectives that seek to create positive outcomes. For example, “I’m going to be more emotionally present with my partner so that we can deepen our love.” Avoidance goals seek to prevent bad outcomes, i.e. “I’m going to be more emotionally present with my partner so that we have fewer fights.” Applied to the world of romance, assessing your social goals—and recognizing whether they are driven by approach or avoidance motivations—can not only predict your happiness in a relationship but also help illuminate reasons for unhappiness.
Are you driven by approach or avoidance social goals? Defining your relationship objectives deepens your understanding of who you are in the world of romance. Spend some time reflecting on what you desire most in a relationship: a) to embrace (flaws and all) and grow an emotional connection with a partner, b) to minimize conflicts, disagreements and discomfort in your interaction with a partner.
In 2014, for the first time ever, demographics saw single adults outnumber married adults in the US In 2015 the dating app, Hinge, polled 1,500 members asking them to define their objective on the website. The results: 63% want a lasting relationship, 33% want casual dating and 2% want to hook up. Extrapolated to represent a cross-section of society, this data suggests that the majority of us believe we want a lasting relationship. Thinking we want something generally means we believe it will bring us happiness.
However, as Girme and other research shows: thinking that we want something in love (i.e. a relationship) doesn’t mean we’ll be happy when we get it. Perhaps what we need is for surveys like Hinge’s to deepen their approach by asking respondents why they want to be in a relationship and what they will concentrate on when they’re in one. These are the real questions that illuminate for each of us our own motivations and help us to identify like-minded partners with whom we might find synchronicity and longer-lasting, more harmonious connection.