There’s a major public health crisis that may very well be affecting you or someone you care about. But it’s probably not the one that immediately comes to mind. Indeed, it’s probably one you haven’t given much thought to at all—but you should.
The crisis is social isolation—loneliness. And for many American men, it’s a problem that’s creating disproportionately devastating results.
The good news: Loneliness can be combated—and even headed off at the pass if you impart some emotional intelligence to your sons and grandsons early enough.
Knowing the enemy
It’s important to understand that loneliness is not automatically the same thing as being alone—not if you choose solitude, for example. Being lonely doesn’t necessarily mean you’re clinically depressed, either.
Rather, loneliness is what you feel when you perceive a gap between your desired level of connectedness with others—the quantity and quality of your social life or emotional connections to others, say—and the actual level you’re experiencing in your daily life. The larger the gap, the lonelier you’re likely to feel. That’s why you can be surrounded by people all day and still feel lonely—if, for example, you’re unhappy with the extent to which you feel you’re connecting with those people.
The health consequences of loneliness
It might surprise you to learn that social isolation and the loneliness that accompanies it have been called the most prevalent health issue in the country today by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
According to a Cigna survey of 20,000 U.S. adults, loneliness levels have reached an all-time high—with nearly half of the adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone. What’s more, just slightly more than half of adults have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
This make sense when you consider various studies showing that more than 25 percent of Americans live alone, fewer people are volunteering in their communities than at any time in the past two decades and a rising number of people report not regularly attending religious services. Social media may also play a big role in how connected we feel. In a study of adults between the ages of 19 and 32, those who reported spending more than two hours a day on social media were twice as likely to describe feeling “left out” or isolated.
The impacts of pervasive loneliness on our health can be truly severe. For example:
- In one study, even after adjusting for age, gender and lifestyle choices, socially isolated people were more likely to die over the course of the study than people who were socially connected.
- Loneliness boosts the risk of cardiovascular disease and of Alzheimer’s.
- Loneliness can be as much of a risk factor over time as smoking.
- A study of 3.5 million people found that those who say they are lonely, isolated or “merely living” have a 26 to 32 percent higher risk of premature death.
Loneliness’s impact on men
Loneliness can affect everyone, of course. But various groups of men and boys may be feeling a particularly heavy burden of social isolation. For example:
- White, heterosexual men have the fewest number of friends of any cohort in America, based on analysis of two decades of data.
- Middle-aged white men have the highest rate of suicide among any group in the U.S.
- Since 1999, the rate of suicide among men ages 50–54 has risen almost 50 percent.
- Boys ages 15 to 19 died by suicide 3.31 times more than girls in that age range.
These findings are especially noteworthy given a body of research suggesting that women are more likely to report feeling lonely. But even if there are fewer lonely men than women, that loneliness may be affecting men’s health in more dangerous ways.
The most commonly cited reason for men’s struggles with loneliness is, not surprisingly, the long-held definition of what it means to be a man—stoic, strong, independent, not “overly emotional” and so on. Interestingly, men are just as likely as women to say they want emotional intimacy in their friendships. But in the moment when they’re with other men socially, many can’t bring themselves to talk in-depth about their problems and feelings for fear of looking weak. Thus, connection gaps that generate deep loneliness can form—accompanied by a sense of shame for feeling lonely in the first place.
Compounding this problem is the fact that friendships often drop off over the years. By the time men hit middle age, their close relationships from earlier in life (trusted college friends, for example) often get jettisoned due to work and family commitments. Faced with the prospect of investing a lot of effort into building new deep friendships—it takes about 90 hours of time with someone before you consider them a real friend, and 200 to become “close”—already-busy older men instead double down on work and family. That, of course, can leave them exhausted and in even greater need of close friends who simply aren’t there.
Four solutions for men experiencing loneliness
The good news is that there are solutions that can help men and boys feel more connected and attain, regain and maintain those deeper relationships they seek. Consider these action steps:
- If you’re lonely, admit it. People—and men, especially—worry that they’ll be seen as losers if they actually voice their loneliness. But just as it’s become okay to talk about depression, it’s perfectly acceptable to admit that you’re lonely and would like to do something to change that. In fact, you won’t be able to make much progress if you’re unwilling to even admit there’s a problem to tackle.
- Create set-in-stone times for friendship. We’re all busy—and you may be busier than ever. That’s why it’s vital to schedule regular contact with friends. Reach out to an old college buddy, a group of friends you haven’t seen for a while or even a new acquaintance you feel has the potential to become a trusted friend. If your plan is to meet up every Wednesday night—in person, on the phone, etc.—then commit to that plan no matter what, even if you don’t feel like it when the time comes. Beating loneliness and building or rebuilding good friendships takes consistent practice.
- Aim for as many face-to-face moments as possible. Men bond better through in-person contacts and activities than they do through traditional means by which women bond (such as phone conversations). Actively doing things together helps create stronger connections between men.
- Arm your kids with emotional intelligence. The seeds for loneliness later in life get planted pretty early. Close friendships among young kids often start to change and unravel around age 15 or 16. Confidantes become “buds and bros” as adolescents increasingly take in messaging around being a “strong, independent man.” Deep male friendship starts to look odd, weak and “girly” to many teenage boys. Convey to sons and grandsons that emotions and closeness aren’t concepts “for girls” but rather part of being a better, more whole person. You could help them sidestep significant loneliness down the road.
Loneliness is increasingly being labeled an epidemic by health care experts—and men may be struggling the most to admit they’re lonely and take steps to deal with their isolation. But as seen above, chronic loneliness can pose extreme health risks. If you’re a man and feeling lonely, make the effort to change things for the better. If you’ve got a man in your life who is isolated, reach out and offer assistance. And regardless of your gender, take steps to maintain friendships and connections so you can live your best life.