Life

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.”