Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Bella DePaulo Is Helping To Change Our World

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Some painful experiences really are blessings in disguise. Sometimes the terrible things that happen to you are just plain terrible; there’s no silver lining. But other times in my life, I have ultimately felt grateful for experiences that were devastating at the time.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bella DePaulo.

Bella DePaulo, PhD, is the leading expert on single life and has been described by The Atlantic as “America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience.” Her 2017 TEDx Talk on the topic has had more than 1.6 million views. Dr. DePaulo is the author of Single at Heart (Apollo Publishers December 2023).

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in 1953, during the decade when people in the US married at a younger age than any other time before or since and mostly stayed married. It was a time, among middle class whites, of stay-at-home moms and working dads. That’s exactly how I grew up, with mom raising us four kids and dad off at work, in the small town of Dunmore, Pennsylvania. My parents’ marriage was a first marriage for both of them and they stayed married for 42 years until my dad died. The decade of the 50s has been sentimentalized and regarded as traditional, but historians have shown that it is actually an aberration. It is interesting that I grew up at a time when marriage was about as close to universal as it would ever be in the US, yet I became an advocate for those who feel drawn to single life for all it has to offer. I had a happy childhood and loved my parents. But I wanted something else for myself. I don’t think of myself so much as rejecting romantic coupling, but more as embracing single life for the meaningfulness, fulfillment, joyfulness, and psychological richness that I experience as a single person. Single is who I really am. Living single, for me, is living authentically.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

More important are the books I would have devoured if they existed, but they didn’t. It would have meant a lot to me to read about single people who loved being single and wanted to stay single. Instead, I found book after book based on the premise that single life was something you need to come to terms with, as if it were some deadly disease, or that what single people need is to learn how to be happy until they find The One. In 2019, I reviewed seven memoirs by single women, and though they all had some merit, six of them still fell short of a full embrace of single life. The one exception was the groundbreaking memoir and cultural critique by Keturah Kendrick, No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone. As I said in my story at Medium, “She owns her single life, her choice not to have kids, and every other major decision about how to live her life.”

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

We all become freer to live our best and most authentic lives each time our understanding of human nature becomes more expansive. In the enlightened world that I envision, every child will understand, as a matter of course, that living single is a life path that can be just as joyful and fulfilling as any other. For some people, it can be the best path of all.

I aim to create a world where adults who are naturally drawn to single life will not be asked to defend their choice ever again and where other adults, who do not feel drawn to single life, will not pity or patronize those who are. Millions of people are happy and thriving — not in spite of being single, but because of it.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

For the first forty-five years of my life, my mother never said a word about my single status. In the seven years she lived after my father died, we occasionally traveled together, just the two of us, and we spent some holidays together. We talked about a lot of things, but she never pressured me to marry, not even subtly. I was proud of that. I thought it meant that she could see that staying single wasn’t an issue for me. I never complained about it, collected bridal magazines, or mused dreamily about some future prince. I had an engaging career. In Charlottesville, where I taught at the University of Virginia for several decades, I owned a home that I loved. I’ve always had close friends, and she met many of them.

In the last conversation I had alone with her, as she lay dying, she brought up my single life for the first time. “I worry about you,” she said.

I don’t remember what I said in response, but I do remember that I was stunned and saddened. I wish she had understood that for me, and the millions like me, staying single was how I stayed happy and fulfilled. I wish I knew then what I know now and could have helped her to understand. I wish I had already written my book.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I used to keep a secret file of notes about ways in which I thought I was treated differently just because I was single. When my married colleagues from work included me in lunch outings during the week but socialized only with other couples on the weekends, was that an example of what I would later call singlism? What about when every faculty member was required to contribute the same flat fee toward the department picnic, and on that same dime, my department chair brought his wife and four kids, and I brought me? The examples were all small stuff.

Tentatively, I approached other single people and asked if they ever felt that they were viewed more judgmentally or treated less fairly just because they were single. The response was overwhelming. If I asked at a social event, one person after another would join in, sharing their own experiences. After the first event, I wrote notes for two hours. The next day, I found messages in my email from people from the night before saying, “Oh, and another thing…”

It was clear that I hit a nerve and that I felt deeply engaged with the topic. Soon after, I committed to the study of single people at the center of my research life.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Ever since I published my first book about single life, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, I have been receiving notes of gratitude from readers. Here are a few examples out of more than 100:

  • “Learning your work and that Single at Heart existed was the most ‘lightbulb’ moment of my adult life.”
  • “I know that I’ve reached out before to tell you how much I admire your work, but I’m rereading it now, and I felt moved to re-express my admiration and gratitude. Your work is really profoundly validating.”
  • “You are doing what the feminist movement did in the ’70s. You are giving us the words and language to use to explain our experiences. You are our Gloria Steinem.”
  • “Stumbling upon your vast body of myth-busting work regarding single folks literally changed my life! For myself, and every other Single at Heart person out there, you are a true light. I believe that what you have done is on the level of those who originally sounded the call for civil and gay rights.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, something easy: Change our language to be more inclusive of single people and less stigmatizing. Political leaders in the US, for example, often talk about their concern for “working families”–that suggests that they don’t really care about single people who do not have kids and it probably alienates those single people in the process. It would be so easy for them to express their concern for all of the people in the nation, not just the “hardworking families.”

Second, model the behavior that shows that you value single people and the important people in their lives. For example, for many lifelong single people with no kids, some of the most important people in their lives are their friends. One thing you can do is ask about single people’s friends the same way you routinely ask coupled people how their romantic partner is doing. If you are a political leader who has just won an election, invite your most cherished friends to share the stage with you.

Third, and most important: policies. Right now in the US, there are hundreds of policies that benefit and protect people who are legally married, just because they are married. Single people are treated like second-class citizens. That needs to change. For example, my married colleagues and I may work side by side in the same job for the same number of years, yet when they die, their Social Security benefits go to their spouse (and, under certain conditions, to an array of ex-spouses). As a lifelong single person with no kids, I can’t leave mine to the most important person in my life–they just go back into the system.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Some of my favorite kinds of leaders are people who do not think of themselves that way. They have no formal leadership role. They lead by living their lives fully and authentically, and–without even trying to do so–they become role models. I include role model stories throughout Single at Heart. Here’s an example:

One of my cousins had stayed single her whole life, and because of her presence at the Thanksgiving table, I was rarely bored. Unlike the rest of us, for whom the dinner was our first and only event of the day, Karen had already been out and about, often at a football game, and she regaled us with stories of the antics on and off the field. She was a high school principal who was beloved by her students. She retired many years ago, and to this day, her students are still finding her on Facebook and telling her how much she meant to them.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Say what you mean. When I first started publishing scholarly articles on singlehood, I received a proposal to review from an academic publisher. The proposal was for a book that was based on a dissertation conducted under the supervision of a scholar I greatly respected, someone who has transcended the halls of academia to become a noted author and public intellectual. I was appalled to find that the proposal was marred with demeaning, stereotypical assumptions about single people (what I call “singlism”). Of course, I recommended that the book not be published. Then, because I was so dismayed that the faculty advisor I had held in such high esteem had approved that proposal, I wrote an email to her. I tried to be very tactful about what I found problematic about her student’s proposal. Well, I was too tactful. The advisor did not understand what I was saying. I needed to have the courage to say what I really meant.
  2. Educate, don’t alienate. After that early experience, I have too often erred on the opposite end of the spectrum–I am too forceful in my critiques. I end up alienating instead of educating. I confess that I am still guilty of this sometimes, especially when I think that the person I’m critiquing should know better, or actually does know better but is finding it rewarding to say something other than what they really believe.
  3. Don’t feed the trolls. This should be self-evident, but it wasn’t to me at first. Sometimes I reciprocated their snark. Other times I tried to engage with them respectfully. Both strategies were pointless. Just ignoring them works best, I think.
  4. Write for the people who will want to read your book. I shared an early draft of my first book, Singled Out, with someone recommended to me, who did not like it at all. When I asked her to give me some examples of nonfiction books she loved, I realized that this person was never going to be receptive to my message. Back then, I thought that meant that I should write in ways more likely to appeal to her. I would still like to reach people who are not the most likely audiences for my books, but I now think I should write as powerfully as I know how, for people who would welcome my unvarnished message.
  5. Some painful experiences really are blessings in disguise. Sometimes the terrible things that happen to you are just plain terrible; there’s no silver lining. But other times in my life, I have ultimately felt grateful for experiences that were devastating at the time. For example, I used to study the psychology of lying and detecting lies. After Singled Out was published, I wrote a proposal for a book on deception. It was rejected by every publisher. It turned out that another scholar had just circulated his own proposal for a book about deception, and as one of the rejecting publishers told my agent, his book had “sucked all the air out of the room.” It took me a long time to get over that. But now, in retrospect, I am so very grateful that I never wrote that book. It would have drawn me away from the true love of my life, the study of singlehood, which has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” This is particularly meaningful to people who are living in ways that are not celebrated and maybe even stigmatized, such as embracing single life and staying single for life. We who are Single at Heart would do well to own our love of single life and the sense that by living single, we are living authentically. It is good for us and it is good for the other people out there who may feel the same way about single life but wonder if that means there is something wrong with them. They should instead know what a great life that can be.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’m not the sort of person who is smitten by celebrities. The people I would most like to meet in person are the people I’ve gotten to know online who share my love of single life, who think deeply about issues relevant to embracing single life in a world that celebrates couples, and who have wit and a lot of heart. Fortunately, I will get to meet some of them during my book tour for Single at Heart.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Book Group:




This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Bella DePaulo Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.