The Epidemic of Loneliness in North America
Updated: Oct 4
Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General from 2014-2017 has cited that the epidemic of loneliness, particularly amongst American men, is a major public health concern. In his recent book “Connection” Murthy discusses the multiple contributing factors that have increased this isolation phenomena. Of most interest are the very real mental and physical health risks associated with loneliness.
One study equates loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Billy Baker of the Boston Globe, in his confessional, controversial, & groundbreaking 2017 article, decreed that the biggest heath threat to middle-aged men is not smoking or obesity -- but loneliness. Some of the other impacts to men’s well-being are alarming:
· Increased alcoholism & substance abuse
· Increased rates of heart disease
· High blood pressure
· Increased mental health issues (depression; anxiety)
· Higher susceptibility rates to chronic diseases (like diabetes)
In one study by YouGov, 44% of men over 18 are lonely all the time (and men typically under-report in surveys!). Most alarming, the rate of suicide for men in every age range has increased 50% in the past 10 years, and the rate of suicide for all men is 3 ½ times higher than it is for women.
So, what accounts for this disturbing health trend?.......
For one, this is a uniquely North American trend, entrenched in social and cultural stereotypes that no longer serve your average man in 2020. Historically, American men have prided themselves on their “rugged individualism”. Our culture has championed the “lone cowboy”, the independent self-reliant man who seeks out his existence in the new world through his puritanical work ethic and sheer force of will. Henry David Thoreau in Walden espoused solitude by spending 20 months alone in the Massachusetts wilderness, surviving on his own, though he was quoted afterwards as saying “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.
These historical archetypes no longer serve us, and indeed we are unique in this propensity to self-inflicted isolation in the world. In the Middle East, it is not uncommon to see men walking arm in arm, speaking closely to one another. In Africa, young men often walk holding hands, but are quickly admonished when they come to the U.S. as exchange students, as this is not a culturally accepted practice. Indeed, even in Christianity, Jesus had 12 disciples. Did God ever say to Jesus “…..go forth and do my bidding alone”? No! He wanted Jesus to carry out His mission through other men.
So why do we hold onto these stereotypes that hurt us? The short answer – we do it to ourselves. A toxic combination of ego, homophobia, and reluctance to appear “weak” or vulnerable. Our culture also still supports toxic masculinity through a steady stream of messaging in sports, Hollywood films, and even politics.
One obstacle is that men don’t want to appear like they even care about this issue, or appear like they’re making an effort. Understandably, to be deemed “successful” as an American man, the expectation is narrowly defined: work hard, put in lots of hours on the job, commute long distances, provide income to your family, and spend your weekends coordinating car pools for baseball, soccer, football, and hockey for your kids. This leaves little time for maintaining and cultivating friendships. As Dads, we all want to look like Superman, when in fact, most of us are just a dorky Clark Kent. This requires us moving from a definition of success driven more by fulfillment, rather than achievement.
It’s easy for Dads to vest the majority of our time into our spouse, who then becomes not only our sole confidante, but an “emotional waste basket”. Come on, men! – no woman wants that in her partner. (of course this comes from a man who fell into this trap myself, causing me to blubber to my wife – I’m sorry – I know I keep dumping on you!…..To which she innocently replied “What are you talking about?......”)
There is a pervasive myth that friendships are naturally organic, growing like wildflowers, flourishing independently in any soil, when in fact they require regular attention – like working out at the gym or tracking your personal finances. As men, we tend to reach out to our friends only during traumatic events, like divorce or the death of a loved one. Sadly, the friendships have waned over time, making a reunion difficult. It’s like trying to get a cell phone signal in the Australian Outback – you’re just not going to get a connection.
Part of the issue may be in the word itself – “lonely”. No man ever wants to admit to being lonely. The word itself conjures up images of a pathetic man sulking in the corner, his posture slumped, as he lets out a heavy sigh surveying the emptiness all around him.
This image could not be more false. Lonely men typically are immersed in social situations, it’s just there is no connection in their social ecosystem. I’ll never forget how worried I was about my best friend after a difficult divorce. Through pure coincidence, I ran into him at a bar in Providence on (what looked like) a double date. Pulling him aside, I applauded him for getting out of the house and being social. He looked me straight in the eye, and said “Paul, just because I’m out with other people, it doesn’t change a damn thing. I’m the loneliest guy you’ll ever meet.”
So how we do we change this narrative? Here’s one idea – let’s not use the word “Lonely “ - it’s too supercharged with negative connotations, like “I need something”. How about these instead?
· Isolation – makes it feel like the situation has been done to us, rather than a failure on our own part.
· Disconnectedness – Accurately describes being immersed in a hyper-techno-connected world and yet not feeling any true sense of connection.
· Social sequestration – okay, I made this one up. Sounds impressive when it’s really not. The point is we are sequestered away like a jury, unable to communicate to the outside world
· Bro-soloist – okay made this one up as well. I noticed that you whenever you add a prefix of bro to some new word, it tends to be much more palatable to your average guy.
There could be a silver lining, in of all places, the Coronavirus epidemic. The pandemic has brought the topic of loneliness from a whispered conversation in the shadows to the forefront of media. Every American has experienced first-hand the profound isolation this pandemic has brought on, and the impact of even just 2 months of self-quarantining is startling.
Fathers of autistic children are already well-familiar with this feeling of isolation. The demands on us as Dads force us to prioritize work and supporting our autistic children above everything else. I think about my own inner monologue when I’ve struggled with managing all of these competing demands:
· “I got this….”
· “I can do this on my own……”
· “I pride myself on my independence…..I mean…..I’m a pretty self-reliant guy”
· “Yeah, I’ll figure this out….”
· “Eh, what’s the point? No one knows what I’m going though. I doubt they would care anyway…”
So how do we stop this? As a classic man, my first knee-jerk reaction is to “fix” the situation at hand. Sound familiar, gents?
Here are a few tips for connection:
· Join an amateur sports league – sports are probably the most culturally accepted practice for men to meet up with other men. Join a softball league, racquetball, pickleball, or ultimate Frisbee. And don’t worry about being out of shape or out of practice, just do it.
· Meet Ups – Meet Ups are a great way to connect with others who share a common interest. What I love about Meet Ups is the sheer diversity of Meet Up themes: hiking, young entrepreneurs, sushi enthusiasts, meditation, kickball. Further, Meet Ups are a fantastic way to connect for men who have had to move to a different part of the country.
· Church groups – Many churches hold prayers groups specifically for men. One friend of mine found enormous connection through a church group he attended every week called Joshua’s men, where men of faith developed spiritually together in a supportive environment.
· Take a risk – hey man, just reach out to another guy you think you might gel with. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Oh right, rejection – that sucks. But you know what’s worse? Suffering in silence.
Lastly, you are not alone. For Dads of autistic kids, www.autismdadvocate.org is here for you. Drop us an e-mail (contact us section) and how you’d like to connect. There are thousands of us just like you. We would love to connect with you. No more need to be a bro-soloist…..