Recent research shows that increasingly, it’s middle-aged and older men that are feeling the pains of loneliness and isolation. Life coach and BetterMen founder Dan Stanley (pictured below) talks about why we need to address it.
I’ll start with a divisive statement: “I believe male loneliness to be the biggest threat to modern men’s wellbeing.”
I’m going to explain why, with the use of statistics and my coaching experience.
In a recent YouGov poll, 32% of men stated they didn’t have a best friend and in a confidential survey conducted by Age UK, it reported that eight million men in the UK feel lonely in their lives. Also concerning is the 2015 Holt-Lunstad report, which found that loneliness can increase your risk of death by 26% and that being lonely is worse for your health and wellbeing than being obese.
Despite how damning these statistics already are, they may only scratch the surface of the issue, particularly when you consider the 2017 Jo Cox commission on loneliness. It surveyed 1,200 men and ten per cent said they would not admit to feeling lonely and instead would prefer to keep it hidden because of internal shame.
Do you feel lonely in your life? In your ‘hour of need’, would you have someone to call? If you’re feeling lonely, would you admit it? Loneliness can cause lethargy, anxiety and depression and it’s a problem, particularly so after the isolation and lockdown restrictions we all experienced during the pandemic. And yet, I truly believe that the more we ‘silently’ ignore the impact of male loneliness, the more common it will become in men as a gender and in wider society
So what are the factors behind this ‘silent epidemic’?
Let’s take a look. The first I will focus on here is a lack of free time.
I often refer to the midlife bracket, of the thirties and forties as the messy middle. It’s that time when the demands and pressures of our life can become all consuming, particularly if we aren’t clear on our purpose, our priorities and our values. Further compounding this is that it’s likely been decades since we left our childhood friends at home before heading off to university, or we hung up our boots and stepped back from the connection and community competitive/contact sports once afforded us.
This almost natural separation means many men have unknowingly let formative friendships drift away in the swell of life and now naively rationalise to themselves that the bi-yearly phone call they force themselves to make keeps them truly connected to friends back home. Men in the ‘messy middle’ can find that free time is an increasingly rare commodity for them and I believe the constant rush and busyness of their lives creates the biggest barrier to them keeping connected to their current friendship groups or cultivating new ones.
Some 2500 years ago, Socrates, a prominent Stoic philosopher said: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”. It seems and feels that as a gender, we’re still struggling to reconcile this concept and for many men, their busyness results in a barren life and lonely life.
The second issue I feel that is cultivating middle-aged male loneliness is the resistance many men have to speaking about and discussing their feelings. We all acknowledge that this is still a common behavioural trait in men. It stems from childhood and is influenced by us being taught that ‘real’ men need to be strong, stoic and silent. It’s compounded in later life by toxic phrases such as ‘man up’ and ‘grow a pair’, which are still shared freely amongst men but only reinforce the protective self-imposed isolation that many men subject themselves to.
But this self-imposed isolation creates a withdrawal, a separation, a subtle disconnection and inevitably a loneliness in men. To counter this, I turn to Dan Doty, the founder of Evryman, a US based men’s group. Doty created the following thought provoking equation: Vulnerability x Time = Depth of Connection.
The logic underpinning this equation is that if we increase our vulnerability, the time it takes to deepen our connection to others lessens. By the same token, it’s reasonable to assume the opposite is true too: A lack of vulnerability x A lack of time = A lack of connection.
A lack of connection and a lack of ‘growth friends’ is one of the reasons why I created my Better Yourself small group coaching courses. The men doing the course share aspects of themselves that they wouldn’t normally, but because every man is doing so, it lessens the stigma and deepens the connections.
The final point which I believe is compounding male loneliness is our dependency on convenient but superficial digital connections.
I am not against social media, it has given a powerful and necessary voice to key issues such as Black Lives Matter and the Gender Pay Gap. What I am against is how we as a society exploit the ease and expedient nature of our digitally connected ‘togetherness’.
Even before the prominence of Facebook and the rise of Instagram and LinkedIn etc, men were skilled at keeping conversations at a surface and superficial level. Now, because of our reliance on digital interaction, many men have mastered the art of avoiding and evading any conversation that might require them to converse about how they feel.
Paradoxically, we’re connected to more people than ever before, but research would suggest that we have never felt so lonely and disconnected.
I personally believe that part of this digital disconnect is fuelled by a subconscious belief that many of our social media connections are only transient and as a result, we simply don’t care to carve out the time to commit to them or show up in the meaningful ways like we do our physical friendships.
So how do we combat male loneliness? It’s a simple but difficult answer. It will require a concerted effort from the men of our generation, both as individuals and as a wider collective.
We need to redefine the standards of modern day masculinity. We need to place a greater emphasis on connection, not just to other men but to ourselves, our family’s and our communities. By redefining the standards of what it means to be a man, we can reduce many societal and socioeconomic issues, but to do so we need men to increase their emotional courage, embrace their vulnerability and most importantly, talk.
My parting message is this: Men. Talking about your emotions does not make you weak, it makes you durable.
If you recognise you’re lonely or perhaps that you want to create new male friendships and you’re an able-bodied man who has an interest in the outdoors and who wants to connect with other likeminded men, you’re welcome to join our Men & Mountains walking community.