For aging men, loneliness can be deadly

Men who lose touch with buddies on their way to the top need to reach out again

Fat wallets and no friends

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Men grow lonelier and sadder as they age, whereas women’s self-satisfaction accelerates, writes psychotherapist Thomas Joiner in a new advice book to help men fight loneliness, a condition that creeps up over time, “a lot like hair loss.” In Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, Joiner tells the story of his own father, a successful businessman and family man, who committed suicide at age 56. “My dad had close friendships in early childhood but they faded or failed for whatever reason. I have godparents; they were close friends of my dad’s and I can still recall the excitement he showed when our families socialized. Tellingly, he lost touch with them. And the problem is not precisely that he lost them, the precise problem is that he did not replenish them—and I believe it killed him, or more accurately led him to kill himself. His autopsy report should read: male, age 56, cause of suicide: friendlessness.”

The condition of loneliness isn’t just psychologically detrimental; its health effects can be as fatal as cancer and obesity, reports Joiner, suggesting it’s associated with “less restorative sleep” and “decreased functioning of the immune system.” In a study of middle-aged men in Sweden, “having a close attachment to just one person, like a spouse, did not confer much protection against heart attack and death due to heart disease. But having multiple friendships did.”

Joiner theorizes that men sustain fewer friendships than women in part because they are more narcissistic and self-centred. “Men seem to be under the impression that friendships will always be provided for them, just as they were in grade school.”

Also, men, more than women, focus on attaining wealth and status, neglecting relationships. “A lucky few can get by on the friendships they made back in the day. But many can’t, and over time, men drift away from friendships and simultaneously earn money and status. This leaves them puzzled indeed—they spent years achieving money and status, finally got it, and yet they feel lonely and empty.”

As for solutions, most men aren’t suited for group therapy, writes Joiner. “I can spot ersatz solutions because I am a relatively hard-drinking sports fan from Georgia—a son of the American South, where suspicion is high, rightly I believe, about ornate solutions that seem unnatural.” For that reason, he doesn’t recommend convening in the woods “to get in touch with their primitive sides.”

What a man needs is a gang. “Gangship is essential to men’s well-being. The trouble with men is they tend to lose touch with their gang. Though this will sound strange initially, this is why they watch sports on TV,” he writes. “Lonely men at home alone crave a reconstituted gang. Hence NASCAR and golf, the attraction to and fascination with, for men, represents an attempt to vicariously experience gangship.”

A practical solution? Reconnect with your best friends from youth, advises Joiner. “Have a reunion with them. It needs to be as juvenile a time as the guys can muster, and ideally it needs to occur regularly. The goal of the reunion is to reconnect the man’s social connections when they were at their peak.”

And bring booze. “Alcohol probably does more good than harm,” he says. “I am aware of several examples of people who have banned alcohol from their lives, with very untoward effects. The poet John Barryman and the novelist Jack London each stopped drinking in the weeks and months before their death by suicide. Sobriety, far from contributing to their well-being, seemed to accelerate their social isolation and thus fuel their deterioration.”

Finally, reconnect with nature and call a friend a day. “One approach to male loneliness is simply to revert to a more natural state of interaction with nature, even if only in small doses. Staring out the window for 10 seconds, for instance.”

“Small doses of social connection are strong medicine. You take your statin medicine every day, you take a third of an aspirin every day—well, take your social medicine every day and call somebody.”


For aging men, loneliness can be deadly

  1. The biggest contribution to separation from “the gang” is a family law system which eagerly and readily strips a man of his children and assets.  Regardless, it’s good to know we should keep drinking at least.  

  2. Friendships are important.   Younger men can also become very isolated thru marriage and child-rearing.    It is a delicate balance to be a good father and husband while maintaining a few friendships.   Personally I am a Mason and attend lodge once or twice a month.   I find is a great place to reconnect with other men and share some laughs.    However, most nights I am home with the family.

    • I agree John. I have just been accepted into the Masons, and I am really looking forward to my initiation in January 2013. It seems that my old friends have all drifted away despite my repeated efforts to get together. I too feel that friendship is an important part of a healthy and balanced life. I do think that my old friends will regret giving up their close friends as they get older. Unfotunately, I have had to give up on them, and start meeting new people. Hence the reason I applied to be a member of my local Masonic lodge.

  3. Funny how in the age of globalization and mass communication, we are tending more and more toward the disintegration of social networks. In addition, it seems that a lot of our previous social networks seem more toxic than good. It is time to start looking for where the good connections lie. A great read on this topic is Nicholas Christakis’ “Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do.” http://www.connectedthebook.com/

  4. Yes, it’s official, there are far too many lonely middle-aged men and older in today’s society. This shows how shallow social networking online actually is. People might have 700 new friends thanks to facebook and the like, but there’s a big difference between having virtual friends and real friendships.

    Unattached middle-aged men are a particularly lonely lot. Couples don’t want them hovering around, and often it’s difficult to strike up a new relationship after a divorce or a lifetime of being single. And although not every man wants to be in a relationship, most men want to feel wanted and loved, and welcome by others.

    Being alone and being lonely are 2 completely different things but sadly there is an increasing number of over 50 males that are both alone and lonely. Many of these sad individuals turn to the bottle for comfort and now we have the lonely middle-aged alcoholics on which a whole chapter could be written.

    I’ve always said that people need to put the communications technology to sleep at a certain time every days and plug back into real person-to-person interaction, before we lose our socialisation skills completely, but no one’s listening to me ;-)

    • Some of us are listening. The book suggests that most middle aged men today are spoiled and immature. “Grown ups” is a term that was used a lot in years past but has not been used as much recently. I think it’s a good term. Think about men you know between 45 and 65. Are they “grown up?” I would be hard pressed to come up with a grown up among the straight middle aged men I have met in recent years. Grown ups are mature enough to be light hearted and open to reaching out to others in friendship. There is a very serious shortage of grown ups among straight middle aged men. I believe the percentage of male grown ups between 25 and 30 actually exceeds that for ages 50 to 60. If a man wanted to become close friends with some grown ups, I wonder where he should look for them. The basket ball court, the barber shop, a sports bar. Where else might “grown ups” be? Hmmmmm.

  5. Especially if you don’t have a loved one to share your life with.

    • The man in the article was married. This is actually a problem that is affecting married men.

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