In my college course on the science of well-being, I devote at least three classes to what psychologists have learned about nourishing healthy relationships. Ask school children who their friends are and many list last names close to them in the alphabet. Why? Because most friendships are determined by seating charts. Schools shove future friends in your face. During the innocence of youth, proximity alone is grounds for liking someone. But things change dramatically as we get older, especially for men. Open-mindedness takes a hit. What other people think of us and where we stand in the social hierarchy is of epic importance. But there's something else that makes it hard to make friends, something insidious that few people talk about.
When men hit their 30s, many cling to their high school and college friends. And if these don't last, men have a hard time forming new friendships. I'm not talking about work-out partners and neighbors you pound a few beers with while ribs are grilling, I'm talking about confidants. People who you are willing to share your innermost self to because you feel it will be valued and accepted (regardless of what evils lurk there). Women are fantastic at cultivating these relationships. Women spend substantial time and energy to creating intimate relationships, safe havens and people that care about the good things that happen to them. Men? Not so much. With one exception: Men who get married. With wives in charge of their social life, men get a free pass to a rich social life.
Now is the time to be skeptical. After all, most gender differences are miniscule. Differences between men and women in talent for science, math, engineering and technology? Miniscule. Research on this topic shows its about motivation, not ability. Differences between men and women in empathy, compassion and love? Miniscule. Ends up being more about how these interpersonal emotions are expressed, not about gender differences in what is felt. So why should you believe that as we get older, men tend to feel lonelier with less confidants compared to women and their abundance of meaningful relationships?
Drawing on decades of research, Thomas Joiner weaves a neglected story about how the manly pursuit of status, power, wealth and autonomy leads to great rewards in work and play but at the expense of loving, caring friendships. This is laid out beautifully in his book to be released this week titled, Lonely at the Top: The High Costs of Men's Success.
Personal strivings are the central projects that people think about, plan for, and allocate time and energy toward. Strivings provide information about what a person wants as well as the type of person they wish to be. Men disproportionally strive for wealth, success and power compared to women. Women tend to have a different instruction manual for life, putting a premium on nurturing and befriending other people. This doesn't mean that the average woman is unconcerned about success and status, but that this is less likely to be done without checking in on friendships to ensure they attain their highest potential.
Using rigorous scientific techniques, we know that strivings matter for well-being. Striving for wealth and power is less likely to bring about happiness and meaning in life than working hard to care for other people and developing intimate bonds. But if there is one thing we know its that whatever society rewards is what you will see more of. Have you seen Forbes list of the 500 foremost people who provide love, friendship, support and laughter in the world? Nope. Have you received any feedback on your ability to make and maintain friends in high school, college, or in the workplace? Probably not. Have your friends and colleagues given you a surprise party to celebrate your amazing ability to ask questions and take an interest in what they are passionate about? Your willingness to sacrifice countless late nights consoling them? Unlikely. But if you landed a work promotion, published a book or appeared in a movie, champagne bottles tend to appear alongside lavish praise.
I am not suggesting that we choose between success and friendship. I am suggesting that balance take the place of overly-simplified solutions. I am suggesting that conscious attention needs to be given to friendships. Without regular nourishment, relationships wither and die like any other living, breathing organism. And when important relationships falter, and they will, we need to replenish them.
Please note that I am not talking about romantic relationships, I'm talking about friendships, which might be even more important to our well-being. Friendships are hard work, not something that comes as easily to us as it did when we were children, sexually hyperactive teenagers or confused 20-somethings. But this is hard work well spent.
Loneliness is unfortunately rather common. In a survey of 3000+ adults aged 35 or older, 1 in 5 reported being lonely on a regular basis (not just a few uncomfortable moments every once in ahwile). In another survey of college students, 1 in 5 reported being "chronically lonely" (this means they felt alienated and disconnected most of their waking hours). Scary numbers.
Alone, but oblivious. These are the men I worry most about. We are not talking about psychological disorders or mental illness. We are talking about the difficulties of being human. We are talking about issues that men rarely acknowledge, talk about or address. But its easy to shrug this off as someone else's problem while living with a vast gap between the social connections one has and what one desires.
If any of this resonates, don't suffer in silence. Invest in the ultimate investment. Maintaining healthy, close connections to other people. Simple in theory, effortful in practice, and the most valuable, meaningful commodity in the world.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who regularly give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees and health professionals on well-being. He authored "Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life" and "Designing Positive Psychology." If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops related to this topic or others, contact me by going to www.toddkashdan.com