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You may think what I am discussing today may not apply to you. I will be discussing male loneliness; however, I have ideas for everyone today. No way would I ever address only a portion of our community. You all are important to me.
I challenge you to digest today’s segment and see if this challenge or some of it somehow applies to you. Try this on for truth, yours, or another’s. Let’s fight some loneliness.
Male Loneliness. It has been called The Silent Epidemic. There is an ideology called toxic masculinity, suggesting that men must always be strong and stoic, which might be partly to blame for men underreporting their loneliness. In reality, loneliness is normal for everyone – including men – but the stigma of admitting it causes many lonely men to remain silent.
Fellas, are you OK? Studies tell us that, in all likelihood, men will never tell us if they are not.
Only 21% of men say they received emotional support from a friend within the past week, compared to 41% of women, according to a 2021 survey by the Survey Center on American Life.
If you have ever thought, “Why do I have no friends?” it may reassure you to know that you are not unusual. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 18 percent of men admitted not having a single close friend, and more than a third said they didn’t have a best friend. In the same survey, 44 percent of men said they felt lonely “sometimes, often, or all of the time.”
On your next walk, imagine that every fifth fellow you meet is in this position, without any close friends.
According to the Survey Center on American Life, the percentage of men with at least six close friends has fallen by half since 1990. This study confirms that one in five single men says he has zero close friends.
Friends are good for us. Having a circle of good friends increases life expectancy and improves mental health. Understanding that friends are a good thing is by no means any stretch of the imagination.
So why do so many men have none at all?
It could begin with the effects of socialization in our Western society. It takes vulnerability to find and make friends, and vulnerability is something that men are taught “just isn’t a safe space to be in.” Some men feel they simply must white-knuckle through whatever a situation may be and that asking for help is weakness. It may be seen by others as ineptitude or lack of control.
While this seems true, in my reading, much of the cause of male loneliness boils down to this:
1. Fewer opportunities (easier than when in school and college, thrown in with the same folks daily). Being from the same school or university was a bonding, a common community, a hub. We need to insert ourselves into more communities (all of us).
Plenty of us report that once in a relationship or marriage, their old friends were “kind of in a different Zone.” Women often take the lead in social organizing – one comment I remember reading:
“It’s 90 percent generated by my wife. If she didn’t do it, there would be tumbleweed going through my calendar,” said one man.
We saw this in the TV show Friends. Friends ran for ten years until the characters started to pair off and have families themselves, and the magical glue that held them and the comedy together came unstuck – a process that recurs repeatedly across real life.
2. Lack of time – the long list of responsibilities such as work, raising children or teenagers, and spending time with partners and family members. You have “responsibilities and commitments,” and when you aren’t looking, your world gets smaller.
3. Lack of intention – To these two, I would add (and this one is on all of us) lack of intention. I will expand on that in a moment.
Podcaster and Op-ed writer Michelle Cottle discusses how American men and boys are struggling. She is convinced that America needs to send its men out to play: fishing, golfing, hiking, biking, bow hunting — or, for the less sporty types, Ping-Pong, poker, chess, competitive grilling. You get the idea. The particulars are not so important. What matters is that guys start clocking quality time together.
Which is where playtime comes in. Pursuing a hobby is widely recognized as a good way to meet people and establish connections. But the folks who study this sort of thing say it is especially useful for men because of a fundamental difference in how the genders bond. Boiled down: Women talk; men do stuff.
If you are an SNL fan or a YouTube fan, do find the video about men who had trouble making friends and learning to do so at the Man Park. It spoofs men’s inability to make friends and shows them trying and then succeeding. Interestingly, the comments below this SNL video had scads of comments from people declaring it to be hilarious and that this male loneliness thing is real, and they were so glad to see it addressed.
A few years back, we read and learned ‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus’, and we acknowledge that notion now. Men and women have different communication styles, emotional needs, and modes of behavior. And that is A-OK.
The go-out-and-play approach is not without its challenges. Chief among them may be time. Many men already struggle to balance their work and personal lives without trying to cram a standing trivia night date into the mix. And then there is the Significant Other factor: Imagine some poor guy trying to find the right time to tell his stressed-out, overloaded wife that he needs Thursday evenings off from childrearing to go rock climbing. For men with young children, the calculation can be extra tricky.
I will caution that folks can go overboard and throw too much of their time into a hobby, creating an interest but one that is solo and excluding the opportunity to interface with others. Yes, we have to play, but we have to “play well with others.”
Let’s head for solution, shall we? How about we acknowledge and address male loneliness – with solution. (I love to live in solution. Join me?)
Making friends is made possible by Mindset, and Action
- Prioritize – Prioritize friendship. Prioritize yourself. Men who prioritize those relationships are fighting off one of the most harmful things to human health – loneliness.
- Intention – As in setting intentions. Being purposeful. Set a little goal, and meet it.
- Recreation – Re-create-ing
- Remember that notion of making friends more easily when younger, likely because we were thrown together in school, in a dorm, a camp, or in our faith community? Forming friendships was made easier by a combination of frequency and then familiarity.
- We must recreate that environment! That is our challenge. Frequency brings about familiarity. Ease, knowing what to expect lessens anxiety, all that.
- Reciprocity – As with so many aspects of a relationship, reciprocity is the key to survival. Make it good for both. Reach out to the other (they may be working on the same thing you are working on). Make the newer person feel welcome, even if you are just a step (a meeting, one event) ahead.
Time to step in. Here are all kinds of ideas and approaches – so many that surely you will find one (or five!) that fits. Let us begin.
How about doing something positive that also creates that environment of familiarity and frequency? Volunteering in something that interests you or for a cause or a passion will first place you and others on common ground. It is very likely that like-minded and like-missioned people can become friends as they work in concert.
- a soup kitchen – It can be so important to become a dependable regular and not just the folks that show up to help on a holiday when there may be a glut of 1-day volunteers, like at Thanksgiving.
- your child’s school – I’ve never known a school to turn away help, no matter if you have a child enrolled there or not. One man I know considers his volunteer work to be his grandparenting substitute (He never had any children, but he sure had a way with them).
- an animal shelter – There is much to be done, and I will never forget an 87-year-old volunteer. He’d chosen his contribution as going in and selecting the least adoptive dog and “showcase” the pup for the day. As visitors and would-be adoptive owners came in, he would invite them to meet his “dog of the day.” He would encourage interaction, telling stories about their known background or their demeanor there at the shelter. Let’s just say that Mr. Wilson’s dogs found new homes.
Join groups, clubs, meetups
Pursuing a hobby is widely recognized as a good way to meet people and establish connections. But the folks who study this sort of thing say it is especially useful for men. The method most often employed is side-by-side bonding, meaning they do stuff together.
- An environmental club – Likeminded and missioned, again. I read of an attended an event seeking volunteers at a state park for their quarterly cleanup day. I was new to the area and wanted to see the park and meet new people (a two-fer!) I met members living locally now but who were from across the US. Come to find out, they travel to various state parks holding events, are a 5013C, and have potlucks and paddling days at the lake.
- Newcomer’s group or meetup – After I moved to a new state and city, I attended a meetup group for Newcomers (where we told our story of why we chose this city or shared stories of moving debacle). We were encouraged to return, so I did and made it a point to welcome those newer than myself.
- Hiking groups – from beginner to advanced
- Dog clubs and dog walking groups – It’s easy to converse about our furry friends.
- Walking groups – like Silver Sneakers and folks who walk in malls or on tracks at the community centers
- Book clubs – combining like-minded, like-missioned, and frequency, ya see?
- Sports clubs – (“Who’s Yer Team?”) Also good for newcomers to find their tribe.
- Improv groups – Some of the most fun nights of my adult life. Talk about placing yourself outside of your comfort zone, but we were all beginners, and so the playing field was level as we laughed and advanced through exercises together.
- Gardening clubs – friendship-forming and “fruition” of efforts, literally.
- The really cool thing about going to a group, club, or class is that the second time you will already know where it is and what to expect. There will be familiarity. You can, at that time, begin to elevate the opportunity and gain more from it. Invite another member to go for coffee.
Place yourself in a position to meet new people and form friendships.
Join a co-living space – thereby by opening yourself up to proximity or increasing the frequency to end up near others. Plenty of people yearn for the proximity but with privacy. This could provide the best of both worlds.
Take up a new hobby or a sport – The folks who study this sort of thing say that the pursuit of a new hobby or sport is especially useful for men. It enables that side-by-side bonding.
Want to learn more about rock climbing, kayaking, board games, and photography? As you may know, pickleball is all the rage. I joined in with some folks at the local Recreation Center (where we can re-create, and tap into that environment we need), and there I met some folks with whom I am still in touch some seven years later.
Take classes – Enjoy that common ground and a level playing field) Sign up to learn about interests or work-related skills.
Join a place of worship – for friendship seeking, fostering, and for the larger benefit of community, hub, and support.
Renew an old friendship –This has often been successful and has been pursued by many, folks tell me, during and since the pandemic. People gave thought to and returned to that which they really valued. Renewed indeed. (Re-new-ed, in-deed). I have been thinking a lot about this, and perhaps I will soon return with a segment on rekindling.
Don’t overthink it. Just be open to making new friends.
Just be open. Things will come your way. Things you may not have ever noticed before tend to surface if we remain open.
Say yes to invitations. In the spirit of what I have dubbed “Might Be Sumthin,’ Might Be Nuthin’”. You will not know until you go. Set your expectations moderately, and you allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised!
The answer might be right in your neighborhood. I read a story about one man who found friendship when not really looking for it. He was curious about exploring a secondhand approach to consumables during the pandemic, and he joined one of those Buy Nothing groups on Facebook (or maybe it was Nextdoor). As he began to respond, he found a community of giving-minded, supportive neighbors.
In addition to collective efforts, and ones that introduced social interaction, the group he stumbled into has provided months of food for a member with terminal cancer. They collected donations for organizations supporting refugees, people experiencing homelessness, and children entering foster care. It simply happened organically.
That gave way to quick check-ins among a few and shared grocery runs. You see how it goes.
A little bit you, a little bit what you do.
My challenge to gentlemen and everyone who is with me today:
Making friendship a priority is an important mindset. Follow that with action. Men who prioritize those relationships are fighting off one of the things most harmful to human health: loneliness.
Plan a regular activity.
What is one thing you can sample this week from the aforementioned activities? Get thee outta the house(!), and try something.
This week. One thing. From my list or yours, but one thing. Then plan to do something the next week.
My recipe for success is simply this: Begin with intent, select your activity, add in the frequency (that brings familiarity), and the rest will take care of itself.
You deserve it. And you are so worth it.
Nancy Ruffner is a Patient Advocate, consultant, speaker, and coach who guides folks in healthcare navigation, communication, and successful aging. Want to work with Nancy, see if we’re a fit? Schedule a Complimentary Consultation today. nancyruffner.com
A little humor. Check out this SNL skit, Man Park- a commercial advertises an outdoor park made especially for men.