Earlier this year, the Boston Globe ran an article about how the biggest threat to men as they move through adulthood isn’t smoking or obesity, it’s a lack of friendships. The article cited research conducted over the last 35 years showing that people who are socially isolated are around 30% more likely to die prematurely. This phenomenon led the US Surgeon General to state repeatedly that the biggest health issue facing our country isn’t heart disease, cancer, or obesity, but isolation. And, unfortunately, men without friends is fast becoming the rule, not the exception.
Isolation for Men is Easy and Prevalent
A British study in 2015 showed that the likelihood for men to be friendless triples between their early 20’s and middle age, and that married men are much less likely to have friends than single men. And the quality of friendships has suffered, not just the quantity. An Australian study showed that the vast majority of men are not satisfied with their friendships and do not feel like they could discuss personal issues with their friends.
These statistics are not at all surprising, as isolation is ridiculously easy today. In fact, we can easily maneuver through life without speaking to another human being. We can do our jobs remotely from our homes. We can order food, groceries, and anything else we need online. We can buy sex dolls. We can find out about everything in the outside world from Twitter, Reddit, or any news site. We can even have deep conversations with people thousands of miles away, thus building online tribes and friendships. There’s no need to ever interact face to face with another person. We are able to completely withdraw from the world and live via the internet, e-mail, social media, and text message.
Alcohol, sporting events on television every night of the week, easy access to porn, video games, high-definition televisions with hundreds of channels, social media, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and YouTube have created the capacity for us to entertain ourselves by ourselves 24/7. It’s only when we look up from those entertainments that we realize that we haven’t done much with our day, our week, or our lives. And that fact is depressing, so either by habit or by choice, we bury our heads in the sand of entertainment to escape, thereby continuing the cycle of isolation. We’re just living for the next buzz, always striving to stay one step ahead of boredom.
Others stand at the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of entertaining themselves to death, they are isolated because they busy themselves to death. Long work hours, long commutes, never-ending activities for the kids, and household chores consume their calendars. Sometimes this is an honest mistake, a failure to say “NO” to opportunities and activities whose cost far exceeds their value. For others, this busyness is intentional, and is the result of fear or selfishness. We intentionally, though perhaps subconsciously, fill our schedule because we’re afraid to try to connect with others because we lack confidence. “If they really got to know me, they wouldn’t like me.” So, we’re never “available”. There’s always some prior commitment – real, imagined, or fabricated – that keeps us from putting in the time to develop our friendships.
As a father of four children who love sports, I certainly understand the difficulties in building meaningful relationships with other men. My life is spent at the baseball and softball fields and the basketball court. As you might imagine, the same is true for my friends. As the Boston Globe article cited above noted: “[w]hen people with children get overscheduled, they don’t shortchange their children, they shortchange their friendships.”
The thing that we have to realize is that, by shortchanging our friendships, we are actually shortchanging our children too. Our wives and children need us to live out a strong masculinity. Strong. Courageous. Tough. Resilient. Responsible. Skillful. Productive. Respected. When these things are present in our lives, our families are more likely to thrive. Our wives and children will feel safe and secure. They will know that they are provided for and taken care of. They will feel the strength and support of their father’s friends. When those friends either don’t exist, exist only on the surface, or are not a consistent part of our lives, our masculinity suffers, which causes our families to suffer.
Men Have Historically Lived in Tribes
Living isolated lives is a somewhat recent phenomenon. For most of human history, we lived in groups. The groups weren’t necessarily large, but were typically small groups of families. We hunted together. We cooked together. We shared food, resources, and skills. We laughed. We protected each other. We feasted together. We suffered together. We moved together. We raised children together. We buried our dead together. Status mattered. Everyone knew who supported the group and made the group thrive. Everyone knew who pulled their weight. Conversely, everyone knew who was lazy, who was weak, who was unskilled, and who was a jerk, and who was a liability. The group held its members accountable to contribute. Honor and shame were realities. Being kicked out of the group was the ultimate consequence, because without the resources and protection of the group, it meant almost certain death. As I noted in a recent guest post, the lone wolf doesn’t last long and certainly doesn’t thrive.
Children were trained by their parents and others in the group. The boys learned to build, hunt, fish, farm, and forage from their fathers and other men in the group. The girls learned to cook, grow food, and make clothes from their mothers and other women in the group. They boys and men were required to be strong. They were required to be courageous. They were required to be productive. They were required to obtain honor from the group for themselves and their families. But they had the resources of the group to help them thrive.
Now, don’t get me wrong, life was hard. Very hard. There was much more sickness and death. Life spans were shorter. There was less knowledge of the world. There was less art, literature, music, and medicine. But there was less depression. Suicide was very rare. Everything was real. Almost nothing was “virtual”. Conversations and storytelling thrived. Relationships were more authentic. People were more authentic. There was less marketing. There was less income disparity. With the passing of that time, we’ve lost something. In our digital lives, everything is less tangible. But our biggest loss is of relationships and community.
As the research above demonstrates, the academic and medical communities are starting to see the impact of this loss on our health, both physical and mental. This research just confirms what I see regularly from men – a discontentment and dissatisfaction brought about, in part, by a lack of connection to other men; a diminished quality of life wrought by isolation or relationships without depth. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is the most-feared punishment in prison. It’s the same reason that prisoners of war attribute their ability to survive on their ability to communicate with others in the prison camp. We are social creatures. We are not meant to live in isolation. The tough guy who goes his own way, shuns relationships, and thrives as a loner is a creation of Hollywood. We better be tough, and we need to find our road, but if go it alone, we’re missing out.
I started this site because I wanted to help men find a better life experience. To have more days where they had a deep contentment with life. To have more moments where they had a smile on their face and peace in their hearts. To have more laughs borne out of a life full of joy. To get there, we must understand how to merge the old with the new. No one wants to bring back the 1600’s, or even the 1950’s for that matter. There is much about the past that we have rightly moved on from. But we must understand what’s been lost as civilization has marched forward. We must reclaim the aspects of the past that made men happy and fulfilled. And a big part of what must be reclaimed is friendship, our connection to a group or tribe, because it’s been lost. Until it is regained, men will not reach their potential. And when men fail to reach their potential, families suffer as well.
We’ll look at this topic a bit more next week. Until then, here’s a thought: schedule a boys’ night. Get the fellas together. Drink some bourbon. Shoot the bull. Commiserate. Bitch about a few problems. Make fun of each other. As we’ll discuss next week, that’s not the end game, but it’s a start.
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