That’s the headline from Billy Baker’s arguably courageous article about male loneliness for the Boston Globe is the story of the American everyman.
Baker describes men as cut off from friendships by the rigid, over-scheduled demands of the American dream; the demands of work and family, carpools and commutes. And the guys with these problems? We’re the lucky ones. The ones who have work and families and houses and a mortgage.
A 2010 AARP study shows that 1 in 3 Americans, age 45 plus, are chronically lonely. And those numbers are up from 1 in 5 just ten years earlier. That’s 44 million men and women, at risk, right now, today. And long-term, chronic loneliness indeed is equal to smoking as a factor for early mortality, but the story here isn’t just one of the health risks.
Not only do these risks appear to increase the longer men are alone, but so does the likelihood of suicide. Men are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Worst of all, this lack of close relationships could be very, very bad for men. Prolonged loneliness can have serious consequences for cognition, emotion, behaviour, and health—and may even speed up physiological aging.
So why did this article make such an impact?
To be honest I just think it has been one of those taboo subjects. Men don’t talk about friendships openly—that has always been a women’s thing, and that’s not sexist, it’s just a fact.
It’s easier for a woman to mention that she has a girlfriend, a close friend, a friend that she can confide in, and it’s just natural to call her a “girlfriend”. Women are more adept at making friendships than men.
Almost all men have experienced loneliness at some point. It is the pain we have felt following a breakup, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or it might be that you are spending more time away from home. Loneliness can strike at any point in our lives.
The unpleasant feelings of loneliness are subjective; researchers have found loneliness is not about the amount of time one spends with other people or alone. It is related more to the quality of relationships, rather than quantity.
Related Article New York Times: The Challenges of Male Friendships
At some stage in our lives, all men become lonely. That’s a fact of life, and there are common factors that can affect men at any time that might lead to the feeling of loneliness. They could be:
- In a relationship without love.
- Recently divorced, separated, or a long-time single.
- Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, low confidence levels.
- Recent redundancy or unemployed.
- Lack of money—low income.
- Lack of motivation to change, no purpose in life.
- Gambling or addicted to alcohol.
For some men, loneliness may be temporary and easily relieved (such as a close friend moving away, or a spouse returning home after a work trip). For other men, loneliness cannot be easily resolved (such as the death of a loved one or the breakup of a marriage), and can persist when one does not have access to people to connect with.
So why is it so difficult to associate men and friendships?
We can all remember, when we were at school most of our friends were classmates. We sat next to each other every day and where we sat was purely due to where our names were in the alphabet, or the teacher’s seating arrangements. It was pure luck, who we sat with.
But things change dramatically as we get older, especially for men. Open-mindedness goes. Men start to think about how other people see them, and where they stand in the social hierarchy is of huge importance. But there’s something else that makes it hard to make friends, which very few people talk about.
When men hit middle age, many men still have a close bond with school and college friends. But what happens when these friendships pass by? It’s been well-documented that men have a hard time forming new friendships. I’m not talking about work-out partners or gym mates or neighbours you share a quick word with in the morning. I’m talking about soul mates.
To make close friendships, men need to be willing to confess their innermost secrets and insecurities, and to think of other people and not just themselves. Men need to develop the skill of empathy and sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest. “Real men”, though, are not supposed to do these things.
They are supposed to be self-interested, competitive, non-emotional, strong (with no insecurities at all), and able to deal with their emotional problems on their own “man up or ship out”. Being a good friend, then, as well as needing a good friend, is the equivalent of being seen as being weak, a bit of a girl.
Now, not all men are the same, some men are a lot more successful in developing meaningful relationships. But many other men feel left out, feel a loss of connection as they get older—and the sense that having more close male friendships would bring a sense of purpose, it would add value to their lives. Yet, it can feel like a real uphill battle. Some of the common reasons that emerge are:
- Your subconscious tells you that you aren’t “measuring up” to other men your age.
- Lack of confidence, social anxiety in the ability to have conversations with other men.
- Worrying about not seeming to be the traditional male who likes “manly activities” like sports or going to the gym.
Making new friendships takes time, practice, and confidence.
Growing up, most men are pretty motivated to learn how to approach and talk to women. It’s a natural part of becoming an adult (heterosexual) male—and even though it’s far from easy for everyone, the rules of engagement are clearer.
For this reason, many men find that, in their adult years, they are still far more comfortable talking to women—even in a platonic situation.
As I have already mentioned, women are fantastic at cultivating these relationships. Women spend substantial time and energy creating intimate relationships, safe havens, and people that care about the good things that happen to them.
Increasing time demands from our jobs, from our spouses, and from our children make it more challenging. Overall, we have more “inertia” in our lives. And where we once may have explored other interests and made new connections, it becomes harder and harder to fight that inertia and broaden our social circles.
Middle-aged men spend more time at work as status, promotions, increased income, and rising to the top of the executive ladder are their driving forces. The need for friendships and making friends have no bearing on their motives or goals, it only becomes prominent when they need help and support other than family, the wife, or parents. Men have less disposable time to make friends. Men are not sociable animals, so if they are married, chances are that they may have a better social calendar simply because of his wife taking control of it.
There are numerous ways to make new friends; all require time and willingness to try.
It could be joining a local community group, playing a sport that requires membership, golf club, walking club, and so on. Finding a hobby, or becoming a volunteer for a local charity are more ways. For whatever reason, men do not see the need to make new friends—they seem to be quite content with the status quo.
Related Article: The World’s First Minister of Loneliness
A new approach to reducing loneliness—meditation for loneliness.
There is a growing amount of research indicating that as men grow older, they are at greater risk for loneliness and isolation.
There are many different reasons for the isolation that men may feel. It could be personality factors, a traumatic event, poor choices, or health factors. It can affect men even when they are surrounded by people.
Increasing research indicates that loneliness causes risks for more than just feeling disconnected. Loneliness increases mortality rates associated with increased chances of cardiovascular disease and strokes.
Research also appears to find that Alzheimer’s progresses more quickly in people who lack a good social support network. In one study, it was found that being lonely carried similar health risks as smoking.
Not surprisingly, psychological outcomes are particularly harmful to those who are alone. Lonely men report increased rates of depression and anxiety.
In a recent study published in the journal Brain, Behavior & Immunity, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University tried a new approach to solving the problem.
Working with people between the ages of 55 and 85, they taught half of them to meditate using the same Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that has been proven to be so successful in other situations, such as treating chronic pain, extreme depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Related Article: Loneliness is deadlier than obesity.
In the eight-week study, the participants were taught the techniques of MBSR, which included attending a one-day meditation retreat, and were then asked to practice these techniques at home for half an hour every day. Not only did the MBSR group report fewer subjective feelings of loneliness than the control group (those who were not meditating), the researchers found numerous objective health benefits, as well.
J. David Creswell, one of the Carnegie-Mellon study’s authors, said of his findings, “We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way. We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”
Creswell added that while this research suggests a promising new approach for treating loneliness and inflammatory disease risk in older adults, more work needs to be done. “If you’re interested in using mindfulness meditation, find an instructor in your city,” he said. “It’s important to train your mind like you train your biceps in the gym.”
“Mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain.”
In other studies, MBSR has been found to actually increase the amount of grey matter in the brain and this is being investigated as a possible preventative technique for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. When performed in conjunction with moderate exercise, in another study MBSR was also linked to reducing the severity of colds and flu, which again may be a result of it enhancing our bodies’ ability to fight inflammation.
As Steven Cole of the UCLA School of Medicine said about this study, “[the] results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.” In other words, the surprise in this study is not just that a mental technique can reduce emotional distress and help people to feel less lonely, it’s that this purely mental technique can significantly affect your body and its ability to remain healthy.
Additional research was undertaken by The College at Brockport the State University of New York, entitled: “Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention on Feelings of Loneliness and Ruminative Thinking.” Text from the report suggested that:
“Prior research has suggested that the mechanisms of change underlying mindfulness may occur via reductions in rumination, which has been implicated in prolonged feelings of loneliness. The present study concerns the effects of a randomized controlled trial…a mindfulness-based group intervention on self-reported changes in mindfulness, rumination, and loneliness”.
“The results revealed that participants in the treatment groups reported significant increases in mindfulness in addition to reductions in rumination and loneliness from pre- to post-intervention in comparison to those in the wait-list control groups. The effect of the intervention on loneliness remained significant even after statistically controlling for self-reported depressive symptoms.”
Depending on which research you consult, people with good friends have a 22-60% lower chance of dying over a 10-year period.
Men with friends are happier, too. Friendship is correlated with a more joyful life. If a man is depressed, having a friend interact with them regularly is as effective at treating depression with antidepressants or therapy. In old age, friends are more important than grandchildren for maintaining morale. According to sociologist Rebecca Adams, friendship is more strongly correlated with happiness than relationships with a spouse, children, parents, or siblings.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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