The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.
“No man is an island.” — John Donne
Sitting across from him, I could see the rejection on his face. The years had brought multiple divorces and increasing estrangement from his daughter, who seemed in the process of rejecting him again. On the surface, this rejection was often masked by harsh texts and controlling, heated confrontations. But deep down, it was clear that those whom he desired most had left him, and that he felt very alone.
Research indicates that as men grow older, they are at heightened risk for loneliness and isolation. There are many potential reasons for the isolation that men feel, whether it be personality factors, traumatic circumstances, poor choices, and/or health factors. But regardless of the causes, isolation is not simply a phenomenon of proximity; many men feel alone with people all around.
Increasing research indicates that loneliness causes risk for more than just feeling disconnected. Higher mortality rates associated with increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease and stroke are seen in those who are isolated. It appears that Alzheimer’s progresses more rapidly in people who lack good social support. One study actually found that being lonely carried similar health risks as smoking.
Not surprisingly, psychological outcomes are particularly harmful for those who are alone. Lonely men report increased rates of depression. Not only do these risks appear to increase the longer they are alone, but so does the likelihood of suicide. It has been well-documented that men commit suicide at a much higher rate than women, around 3.5 times more. But evidence suggests that this discrepancy only increases as men get older. While suicide rates show a decline in women over 60, elderly white men are approximately 2.5 times more likely than the general public to commit suicide; those over 85 are at an almost 4-fold risk. Loneliness likely has much to do with this.
Despite this ominous news, I believe there are a few major ways in which we men can minimize the risk of isolation in our lives if we can push the fear and put our male pride in check:
1. Abandon the guy code to “just deal with it”
We need to be honest with what we are feeling. I am not suggesting we all go around pouring our heart out to everyone about the challenges we face. But what I am suggesting is that we stop acting like “it’s no big deal” or “I’m fine” when we know d–n well that this isn’t true.
Over the years, I have been struck by the number of times that I have heard guys (myself included) act as if they are handling a situation fine only to discover that their lives and psychological state are anything but “okay.” Unfortunately, many men have been socialized since youth to lie, yes lie, about what is going on internally in order to either keep the peace or avoid conflict. But in the process, it not only leads men to seek out unhealthy ways to cope (e.g., alcoholism, pornography), but it also further disconnects them from the very people that could be of great help. Increased loneliness and isolation only ensues, and the problems get worse. It takes more courage to be honest about how we are feeling no matter how difficult, and recognize that social support will always be one of the best interventions available. So next time you are tempted to deflect a question of concern, consider being honest (and even vulnerable) about what is going on and open to where the conversation may lead.
2. Prioritize friendships as we prioritize our families and work
As a father of soon to be 7 children and a pediatric psychologist, I know how difficult it is to find time see friends. It’s easy to just push this to the back burner, and either just leave get-togethers for a later time or make plans we know we’ll end up canceling. When we do this, the conversations we do have increasingly become superficial and fleeting, and lack the time and substance to provide support when it is most needed. It all speaks to why all of us as spouses and significant others need to support each other in keeping regular contact with our friends. The next time you are tempted to just “veg out” in front of the television, make a phone call to a friend or family member. It might not be the easiest choice, but it might be the one you need more.
3. Support each other in developing ‘inlets’
“Outlets” are opportunities or activities that allow us to “blow off steam” and put our energy into activities that take our mind of stressful situations. Inlets are activities and habits that provide for us long after the action is done, such as running, woodworking, birding, meditating, cooking, or writing. Outlets become inlets when they not only channel our energy into a positive form, but also lead to improvements in ourselves as spouses, fathers, workers, and people. There is nothing wrong with men getting together to have a drink and watch football. Yet if we really want to forge friendships that last a lifetime, we will do it around things that matter. Maybe suggest a hike or a run the next time you plan on getting together, or think about organizing an annual adventure. A few years ago, I started a 24-hour man’s annual backpacking adventure at nearby outdoor location, and was surprised to find just how many guys (many of whom had never backpacked before) were up for the adventure and conversations that ensued.
4. Start with ourselves
It’s easy to blame others for feeling lonely. Sometimes it’s legitimate, and circumstances unfairly leave us without our partners or spouses. Yet so often, loneliness is the product of our unwillingness to consider what we might do differently to attract other people to us. I am not implying that you should be fake or inauthentic. But sometimes people who come to an isolated place get there because they refused to change aspects of themselves that only encourage alienation. It hard to admit that we are a bear to be around, or that I have grown into grouchy old man set in his ways. But as with so many unfortunate scenarios, pride rears its ugly head with loneliness, too, so self-improvement may be the ultimate defense against isolation. The best way to start this process? Ask those who know you best for honest feedback about makes you “hard to be around.” You might be surprised to find that others will often be open to the same insights, and the process will immediately spur a greater connection.