Do you feel lonely? Well, you’re not…alone.
Loneliness in men – particularly in America and in the UK – has been described as a “silent epidemic.” It’s been reported that over one-third of men feel lonely.
Loneliness can take a devastating toll on the emotional and physical well-being of men.
But in a world where we are supposedly more connected than ever, why are so many men so lonely? And what can we do about it?
MALE LONELINESS BY THE NUMBERS
It’s unlikely that we know exactly how many men feel lonely. Many men may not even admit to feeling lonely. In fact, a 2017 study by the Jo Cox commission on loneliness backed this up, showing that 10% of men (from a survey of 1200) would not admit to feeling lonely.
Still, to give you at least some idea of how many men are lonely, we can point to some other studies.
- A study by the University of Pennsylvania found a direct link between social media and loneliness. The more time men spend online the less time they spend building friendships. (And we know how many men are on social media).
- According to a 2019 survey by YouGov in the UK, 18% of men admitted to having no close friends. And 32% said they didn’t have a best friend. These numbers were significantly lower among women.
- The same 2019 YouGov survey found that 44% of men said they felt lonely “sometimes, often, or all of the time.”
- A Morning Consult poll found that 79% of people ages 18-24 report feeling lonely
This is just the tip of the iceberg. You can find a plethora of studies and articles about the silent epidemic. And unfortunately, it seems to be getting worse.
WHY ARE MEN SO LONELY?
Research suggests that loneliness increases as people in wealthier countries work more, marry later, and spend more time with their children instead of their friends.
Dr. Robert Glover, a marriage and family therapist and the author of No More Mr. Nice Guy, asserts that loneliness is part of the human condition.
“It was probably wired into us by our ancestors who had a drive to connect with other humans,” says Dr. Glover. “The very act of connecting helped ensure they would get their needs met. It’s likely that other primal men who tried to go it alone, ended up dying and didn’t pass the gene on.”
The human drive to connect is so strong that when we don’t connect, it can be painful – emotionally and even physically.
“The sad thing is, we no longer live in tribes like our ancestors did,” adds Glover.
“We used to be communal. We operated within a clan. We hunted and gathered and procreated and raised our children and died together. Now, we go it alone. At least most people do. We’re individualistic. Generally speaking, we have to find connection all by ourselves.”
Aside from the fact that we’ve become notably individualistic – particularly in wealthy and developed countries – there are likely a host of other driving factors behind male loneliness including:
Fear of Vulnerability
There’s a reason it’s called the silent epidemic. Many men are reluctant to talk about their feelings and emotions. This is often due to their fear of vulnerability.
A good lot of men were taught at an early age not to express vulnerability. They were told to “suck it up” or “walk it off” or “keep on trucking” and keep their feelings to themselves. They were told that vulnerability shows weakness.
Of course, this isn’t true. Vulnerability does not equate to weakness. And sucking it up just doesn’t work.
Still, many men grew up internalizing the message that they shouldn’t express themselves. They then carry this message with them into adulthood. As a result, they become closed off, isolated, and, well…lonely.
Because many men grew up believing they must be stoic and “manly” (often called “Alpha” today) they can end up feeling lonely and depressed later in life.
Psychology professor and author Niobe Way – who has extensively researched teenage boys – explains that, “Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled girly, immature, or gay. Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not — they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay.”
So, what does this mean?
As Way describes, “These boys mature into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.”
One would think married men are less lonely, but research shows that married men actually have some of the lowest levels of support and camaraderie outside their home. In fact, married men were found to be over 30% more likely than single men to have nobody to turn to in times of need.
Additionally married men were found to be twice as likely as men who are unmarried (but live with a partner) to feel lonely and unsupported
This indicates that it is specifically marriage (rather than being single or in a long-term relationship) that causes men to cut ties with other males.
OTHER CAUSES OF MALE LONELINESS
There are many other causes of loneliness in men, and it’s hard to pinpoint them all. But here’s something to consider: When Tom Cruise said “You complete me” to Renee Zellwegger in the movie Jerry Macguire it completely screwed us up.
“One of the biggest problems we have today is that we confuse the drive for sex with the drive to connect,” says Dr. Glover.
“We wrap them up together and think that if we can just find that one great person that will solve everything. But this just exacerbates our loneliness. It creates a sense of desperation. And it makes us feel defective. If we have trouble finding a romantic partner, we feel empty and worthless. And often if we do find a partner, we place a great burden on that person to meet all of our needs.”
The truth is, one person can’t fulfill all your needs. Thinking they can is what leads to toxic and dysfunctional relationships as well as general feeling of loneliness.
No matter what your relationship status, the drive to connect will always be there.
As previously mentioned, married men often feel lonely because they’ve become disconnected from their male friends and don’t have any kind of a tribe.
On the other side of the coin, single men often look around and compare themselves to men in relationships and assume those men are happy and have everything they want.
Feeling lonely has indeed become an epidemic. Here are some other reasons men feel lonely:
- Lack of social skills. Many adult men didn’t learn effective social skills as a child – maybe they were teased, didn’t play sports, or had parents who didn’t have effective social skills. Maybe they’re just shy or introverted by nature.
- Social anxiety. Men who have social anxiety usually manage the anxiety by avoiding social situations and isolating.
- Toxic Shame. Men often fear being found out if they get into a relationship. That is, being found out that they aren’t good enough. Toxic shame is the core belief that you’re not good enough.
- Social substitutions. Too many men replace real connection with Video games, TV, porn, social media and other garbage that creates a pseudo connection.
- Pedestalizing women. Men have placed women – particularly attractive women – so high up on a pedestal that they’re afraid to even talk to these women. Men have turned women into sexual celebrities and given them all the power. It’s hard to create real-life connections with real-life women when you’re too intimidated to interact with them.
- Fear of success. Men often fear that if they actually do get into a relationship, bad things can happen. They’ll feel smothered, they’ll get hurt, she’ll be crazy, they’ll get her pregnant, etc. While different than a fear of rejection, a fear of success is no less common.
When you look at the world today, it’s easy to see how many of the tools and technologies that were supposed to make us more connected are actually making us more disconnected.
BEING LONELY VS. BEING ALONE
While being lonely is one thing, being alone (or solitude) is another. It’s actually quite healthy to be able to enjoy being alone, to be able to bask in your company.
Let’s very briefly look at the difference between loneliness and solitude.
Research clearly shows that loneliness is bad for both mental and physical health. But being lonely is not the same as being alone. In fact, solitude actually has a variety of mental health benefits, like improved focus and increased energy.
Loneliness is typically marked by feelings of isolation, depression, and a deep need for social connection. It is perceived as involuntary.
Solitude, however, is voluntary. Many people enjoy spending time by themselves and maintain healthy social relationships that they can return to when they desire connection. They are able to consciously balance the time they spend around others with the time they spend alone.
THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF LONELINESS
Loneliness is a universally human experience. We all probably deal with loneliness from time to time – particularly during big life transitions (a move, a divorce) or after a traumatic event (death of a loved one). This type of loneliness – often referred to as reactive loneliness – usually fades in time.
When loneliness becomes chronic, however, big problems can arise. And many men today experience chronic loneliness.
“If reactive loneliness is painful, chronic loneliness is torturous,” says Dr. Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist and an instructor at York University in Canada. “That’s when things can become very problematic, and when many of the major negative health consequences of loneliness can set in.”
Chronic loneliness has been shown to result in a number of issues, some of which include:
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Altered brain function
- Antisocial behavior
- Heart disease
- Decreased memory and learning
- Depression and suicidal ideation
- Increased stress
- Poor decision-making
Chronically lonely adults also tend to get less exercise than those who aren’t lonely. Lonely adults have less healthy diets, get less quality sleep, and report more brain fog and fatigue.
HOW TO COMBAT MALE LONELINESS
Dr. Glover argues that loneliness is just a chemical reaction in your brain. He calls it Chemical L. It can help to see your loneliness from this perspective, because many men mistake their loneliness for defectiveness.
“Here’s the deal,” asserts Dr. Glover. “Mother Nature wants you to feel like crap when you’re lonely and aren’t connected so you will go out and get connected. Don’t mistake your loneliness for defectiveness. Many men think that because they are lonely, there must be something wrong with them. But your loneliness is just Mother Nature telling you to get out of the damn house.”
If you want to combat your loneliness, here are some simple yet effective ways to do so.
- Honor the feeling. “Don’t try to make it go away,” says Dr. Glover. “Your loneliness doesn’t mean you’re a loser. You need to shift your mental view of what it means to feel lonely. It doesn’t mean people can see right through you. Be with the feelings, sit with them, observe them. Don’t judge them.”
- Be a social animal. Ironically, the people who seem to be the most afraid of being alone are the people who most tend to isolate. But as Dr. Glover likes to say, miracles happen around people. You must get out of the house and engage with other human beings. If you have social anxiety, that’s okay. Take baby steps. But you must get out of the house.
- Learn to differentiate. Learn to ask yourself what you want and then act on it. Hold on to yourself when you get resistance from within you or from outside of you.
- Find safe people to reveal yourself to. Hire a coach, join a men’s group, or open up to a trusted friend.
- Take risks. “Even if it scares you, take the risk of connecting with people,” says Dr. Glover. “Take the risk of being vulnerable, take the risk of being found out, take the risk of getting your heart broken. Don’t run away from these things.”
- Set boundaries. You can’t get into a relationship of any kind if you don’t know you can get out. And you can’t get close to people if you don’t know you can set boundaries with them. You get to decide who to let into your space and how they behave when they are there.
Remember, if you’re feeling lonely…you’re not alone. And there’s nothing wrong with you. You just need get out there and connect.
If you’re looking for a tribe of men to support you on a journey of growth and transformation, look no further than Integrated Man University.
Tony Endelman is an author, blogger, entrepreneur, certified transformational life coach, certified No More Mr. Nice Guy Coach and the founder of The Integrated Man Cave.