By Debbie Reslock for Next Avenue
Sharing in an interview that he never told anyone because he felt ashamed, the former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy spoke of his youthful loneliness. He believed at the time that admitting how he felt was like admitting he wasn’t worth being loved.
That stigma, still so firmly attached for most of us, has made it easier to disclose our depression or anxiety than to admit to being lonely. Maybe because it feels like the most wretched character flaw if no one wants to be your friend.
But loneliness is not a reflection of worth. It’s a state of mind with feelings of emptiness and being separate from others. There’s no single cause or fix. Yet the strategies that can help — sharing feelings and spending time with others — can be the hardest to access when you already feel cut off.
Men and Loneliness: What Society Says
Both genders are just as likely to suffer from this perception of social isolation, but it often can be harder to find the way out of the chasm if you were discouraged from expressing any vulnerability growing up. And if alleviating loneliness relies on asking for help, men are likely at a disadvantage.
“Society’s expectations are often that men shouldn’t speak about their needs,” said Dr. Jaqueline Olds, consultant in psychiatry at the MGH/McLean Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They’re supposed to be strong and silent.”
Boomer men are making progress, though slowly. “Our belief system about men has been changing in the last 20 years, but the data still shows that men don’t seek out help like women,” said Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “There’s still the feeling that a man should be able to handle any problems on his own.”
Making Friends and Keeping Them
Both men and women need connections, of course, although their approach can be widely different. Women’s friendships are often described as face-to-face, while men’s tend to be shoulder-to-shoulder. Author and baby boom blogger, Brent Green said that guys spending time together aren’t necessarily sharing feelings, though.
But men who learned to be stoic at an early age may find it harder if they feel alone. “I think men may be unclear on how to go about making friends,” Greif said. “It’s something we don’t teach boys growing up. I was raised to pursue a woman for a date, but I was never taught to pursue a man to be a friend.”
And it doesn’t get easier when men get married and have a family. “They often feel they don’t have the option to keep up with their friendships,” Olds said. “They’re expected to work hard, be productive and spend time with their family. That doesn’t always leave time for friends.”
Being Connected: A Fading Value
“People used to value being connected. We knew we couldn’t survive without it, but now our values have shifted to being individual and independent,” Olds said. “There’s a cultural feeling that we should be able to take care of ourselves and not be needy. Even if we enjoy being with other people it shouldn’t look like we need the connection.”
As our lifespans are nearly doubling, will we be ready with supportive relationships to help navigate the journey? According to Tamara Sims, director of the Sightlines Project at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity and their recently released report, we have some work to do.
Analyzing data on financial security, healthy living and social engagement, they looked at what will be needed to live long and well. Responses from 1995 and 2012 were compared on interpersonal connections with friends, family and neighbors, work, religious and community participation, and volunteering. One unsettling discovery was that boomers aged 55 to 64 were significantly less socially engaged than the same age group was in 1995.
And for both men and women aged 45 to 74, there was a decline in friend support. As we get older, though, we’re going to need more support, not less. Sims said that what has become clear is that we need to focus on social engagement as clearly as we have on our healthy living and financial security components.
6 Ways Men Can Improve Social Connections
Even if you have friends, you may have to relearn how to make new ones. Couples split, people move, and one of the sadder consequences of growing older is that loss will be an inevitable part. Yet as we grow older, we want genuine friends. “Friendships in our 20s were often based just on having fun together, but today they’re tested with life’s heartaches,” said Green.
If you’re a man struggling with loneliness or would like to have more friends to share in life, here are six suggestions to get started:
Make it a priority “We need to establish social connection habits in the same way we have for being healthy or financially secure,” said Amy Yotopoulos, director of the mind division at the Stanford Center on Longevity. “Start by making friendships a priority, not just when you have the time.”
Broaden your horizons “Diversify your social portfolio like your financial one. If your wife plans all the social activities, what will you do if something happens to her? Start taking an active part,” said Yotopoulos.
Don’t give off the wrong signal “You may be portraying yourself as the ideal man — busy and working out at the gym,” said Olds. “But you may also be sending the signal that you’re not available or don’t have time for friends.”
Use technology “We need to intentionally leverage technology,” said Sims. One of its biggest advantages is the ability to provide interactions when we can’t leave the house or when we live in places that are more isolated.
See this as a learning opportunity Learn how to take the first step, Greif said. You can’t wait for the answers to come to you. Men are more comfortable doing things together, so choose something you enjoy and then ask a man to join you, even if it’s watching a sport on television.
Get outside help If you’re still struggling, therapy can jump start the process. “Learning that talking can help is a good start. Then you can take that knowledge and go out to talk to others,” Olds said.
Fighting Loneliness With Friendships
We know that loneliness and isolation is not just a blow to our self-esteem, but can actually kill us, increasing our risk of death and mimicking the same health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“We can’t manufacture friends, but we can manufacture the opportunity to make friends,” said Greif. It takes work, Yotopoulos reminds us in her TED Talk on the subject, although people often believe social connections just occur naturally.
But we need them. And don’t hide behind the self-perceived shame of not having any.
“Loneliness is actually a normal human response. It’s like being hungry,” Yotopoulos said. “It means you need to do something. It’s not that something’s wrong with you, but there’s something you haven’t taken care of.”
Men may have to fight harder to get through the stigma of feeling alone. C.S. Lewis once said true friendship is born when we can say to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” Remember that. Because you’re never the only one. And that’s the profound joy of connection.
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