Is it really better to have 'loved and lost'? Not according to experts

Senior couple embracing, representing loved and lost. (Getty Images)
Do you think it's better to have loved and lost? (Getty Images)

We've recently seen divorce rates rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as rates of single people increasing since the last census in 2011. But, which is the 'better' situation to be in: single or coupled up and at risk of having your heart broken?

After the death of a loved one or a particularly painful break-up it may be difficult to understand the logic behind famous poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous affirmation on relationships: "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all".

Plus, singletons are likely to not want their happiness defined in this way. So, is it really better to have had the 'privilege' of experiencing heartache?

Read more: My marriage ended six weeks after my miscarriage

Is it better to have loved and lost?

Unhappy married couple sitting on opposite ends of the sofa. (Getty Images)
Marriage doesn't always equate happiness. (Getty Images)

One study actually uncovered some flaws in Tennyson's age-old theory. Turns out those who have never actually loved at all are just as happy as those who have loved, lost and got the scars to prove it.

In an attempt to discover the impact love and marriage could have on happiness, researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) attempted to measure the happiness of married, formerly married and single people at the end of their lives.

"People often think that they need to be married to be happy, so we asked the questions, ‘Do people need to be in a relationship to be happy? Does living single your whole life translate to unhappiness? What about if you were married at some point but it didn't work out?,’" said William Chopik, MSU assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the paper.

"Turns out, staking your happiness on being married isn't a sure bet."

The study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, analysed the relationship histories of 7,532 people from ages 18 to 60 to determine who reported to be happiest at the end of this period.

Researchers discovered that participants fell into one of three groups: 79% were consistently married, spending the majority of their lives in one marriage; 8% were either consistently single, or had spent most of their lives unmarried; and 13% had varied relationship histories, or had consistently moved in and out of relationships, divorce, remarrying or becoming widowed.

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Who is happiest?

Single woman looking happy with hand out of car window. (Getty Images)
Those who have never loved at all are as happy as those who have, scientists suggests. (Getty Images)

The team then asked participants to rate overall happiness when they were older adults and compared it with the group into which they fell.

"We were surprised to find that lifelong singles and those who had varied relationship histories didn't differ in how happy they were," explained Mariah Purol, MSU psychology master's student and co-author.

"This suggests that those who have ‘loved and lost’ are just as happy towards the end of life than those who ‘never loved at all’".

Study authors pointed out that mental wellbeing doesn’t rest entirely on relationship status.

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"When it comes to happiness, whether someone is in a relationship or not is rarely the whole story," Chopik said.

"People can certainly be in unhappy relationships, and single people derive enjoyment from all sorts of other parts of their lives, like their friendships, hobbies and work.

"In retrospect, if the goal is to find happiness, it seems a little silly that people put so much stock in being partnered."

While it may seem like the secret to lifelong happiness lies in finding a soul mate to build a life with, this research, along with the rise in singledom we're seeing being embraced, suggests that partnership won’t actually have that much of an impact if a person isn’t entirely happy to begin with.

Equally, sorted singles are just as likely to remain in a good place whether they find true love or not.

"It seems like it may be less about the marriage and more about the mindset," Purol said. "If you can find happiness and fulfilment as a single person, you’ll likely hold onto that happiness, whether there's a ring on your finger or not".

Watch: Dating survival guide: How to avoid becoming 'cuffing season' casualty