“According to the authors of a widely cited meta-analysis, loneliness on its own can increase your chances of an early death by 30 percent and “heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.” And in practical terms, being in contact with nobody in an emergency, like the men in the Chicago heat wave, can kill you in an instant.” — Stephen Thomas
This week in the Reader: The older I get, the more I realize how rare it is to have a true friend. It seems, especially for men, that real friendship is the exception, not the rule, for modern life. Why is that? What are the consequences? And what can we do?
Recommended Readings on Loneliness and the American Man
1. “The Legion Lonely”
by Stephen Thomas in Hazlit (29 min)
“Over the past few decades, loneliness has reached almost epidemic levels, with menuniquely suffering its effects. How and why has isolation become such a threat?” This is excellent and scary.
SELECTION FROM THE ARTICLE:
On average, both men and women start to lose friends around age 25, and continue to lose friends steadily for the rest of our lives. As adults, we tend to work more, commit to more serious romantic relationships, and start families, all of which end up taking priority over buddy time.
Furthermore, young adults move around the country more than any other demographic, which severs our support networks — a phenomenon Robert Putnam calls the “re-potting” effect, referring to the injury a transplanted plant sustains losing its roots. People are changing jobs more than ever, which interrupts connections that in previous eras would have become decades long. And freelancing, which Forbes estimates 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be doing in one way or another by 2020, deprives the worker of not only job security, but social stability.
…When you look at the research, men do not start life as the stereotypes we become. Six-month-old boys are likely to “cry more than girls,” more likely to express joy at the sight of our mother’s faces, and more likely to match our expressions to theirs. In general, before the age of four or five, research shows that boys are more emotive than girls.
The change begins around the time we start school: at that age — about five — boys become worse than girls at “changing our facial expressions to foster social relationships.” This is the beginning of a socialization process in “a culture that supports emotional development for girls and discourages it for boys,” according to Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.
2. “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic”
by Vivek Murthy Waltz in Harvard Business Review (17 min)
The former Surgeon General writes about loneliness as a public health concern, and the role companies can play in creating work cultures that combat loneliness.
FROM THE ARTICLE
Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees — and half of CEOs — report feeling lonely in their roles.
…to truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations, and the workplace. Companies in particular have the power to drive change at a societal level not only by strengthening connections among employees, partners, and clients but also by serving as an innovation hub that can inspire other organizations to address loneliness
3. “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness”
by Billy Baker in The Boston Globe (13 min)
This article is terrific. The author wrestles with the realization that, at mid-life, he no longer has close friendships.
SELECTION FROM THE ARTICLE
I TURNED 40 IN MAY. I have a wife and two young boys. I moved to the suburbs a few years ago, where I own a fairly ugly home with white vinyl siding and two aging station wagons with crushed Goldfish crackers serving as floor mats. When I step on a Lego in the middle of the night on my way to the bathroom, I try to tell myself that it’s cute that I’ve turned into a sitcom dad.
During the week, much of my waking life revolves around work. Or getting ready for work. Or driving to work. Or driving home from work. Or texting my wife to tell her I’m going to be late getting home from work.
Much of everything else revolves around my kids. I spend a lot of time asking them where their shoes are, and they spend a lot of time asking me when they can have some “dada time.” It is the world’s cutest phrase, and it makes me feel guilty every time I hear it, because they are asking it in moments when they know I cannot give it to them — when I am distracted by an e-mail on my phone or I’m dealing with the constant, boring logistics of running a home.
We can usually squeeze in an hour of “dada time” before bed — mostly wrestling or reading books — and so the real “dada time” happens on weekends. That’s my promise. “I have to go to work, but this weekend,” I tell them, “we can have ‘dada time.’ ”
I love “dada time.” And I’m pretty good about squeezing in an hour of “me time” each day for exercise, which usually means getting up before dawn to go to the gym or for a run. But when everything adds up, there is no real “friend time” left. Yes, I have friends at work and at the gym, but those are accidents of proximity. I rarely see those people anywhere outside those environments, because when everything adds up, I have left almost no time for friends. I have structured myself into being a loser.
4. “Do Men Suck at Friendship?”
by Daniel Duane in Men’s Journal (12 min)
Do men have a different model of friendship than women? If so, is the model broken?
SELECTION FROM THE ARTICLE
According to the Male Deficit Model, friendships between men function and falter within strict pragmatic categories: “convenience friends,” for example, exchange helpful favors but don’t interact much otherwise; “mentor friends,” who connect primarily through one man’s tutelage of the other; or “activity friends,” which Matt and I became by surfing in San Francisco.
The theory holds that men tend to drift apart whenever the shared convenience, mentorship, or activity ends
The Male Deficit Model is based on 30 years of research into friendship and relationships — from Mayta Caldwell’s and Letitia Peplau’s 1982 UCLA study, which found that male friendships are far less intimate than female friendships, to a 2007 study at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, which reported greater interpersonal competition and lower friendship satisfaction among men. A just-completed report from California State University Humboldt, meanwhile, holds that the closer menadhere to traditional male gender roles, like self-reliance and a reluctance to spill their guts, the worse their friendships fare. “Since most men don’t let themselves think or feel about friendship, this immense collective and personal disappointment is usually concealed, sloughed over, shrugged away,” writes the psychologist Stuart Miller in his opus, Men and Friendship. “The older we get, the more we accept our essential friendlessness.”
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5. Your New Next Best Friend Might Be a Robot
by Yongdong Wang in Nautilus (18 min)
Description of an artificially intelligent chatbot that is so well programmed, it answers your questions with emotion and draws out emotion in its human interlocutors.
SELECTION FROM THE ARTICLE:
When Xiaoice was released for a public test on WeChat (a popular messaging and calling app in China) on May 29 of last year, she received 1.5 million chat group invitations in the first 72 hours. Many people said that they didn’t realize she isn’t a human until 10 minutes into their conversation.
By mid-June, she had become the sixth most active celebrity on Weibo. One message she posted on the app generated over 663,000 conversations: “As a species different from human beings, I am still finding a way to blend into your life.” Today, she has had more than 10 billion conversations with people, most of them about private matters. Six million have posted their conversation on social media.
This could be the largest Turing test in history. One of its surprising conclusions is that people don’t necessarily care that they’re chatting with a machine. Many see Xiaoice as a partner and friend, and are willing to confide in her just as they do with their human friends. Xiaoice is teaching us what makes a relationship feel human, and hinting at a new goal for artificial intelligence: not just analyzing databases and driving cars, but making people happier.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” But recent research suggests that friendship not only gives value to survival but has survival value of its own:
“Loneliness accelerates age-related declines in cognition and motor function, while a single good friend has been shown to make as much as a 10-year difference in overall life expectancy. A huge meta-study performed in part at Brigham Young University, which reviewed 148 studies with a combined 308,849 subject participants, found that loneliness is just as harmful to health as not exercising, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and alcoholism, and fully twice as bad as being obese. Still more startling is a 2010 study published in theJournal of Clinical Oncology that looked at 2,230 cancer patients in China. Social well-being, including friendship, turned out to be the number one predictor of survival.” — From the Men’s Journal article.
If friendship is so important to our health and wellbeing, and if we (especially men) are tending to fail at friendship, shouldn’t we rethink our approach to friendship? Maybe universities ought to make “friendship” a core course.
I spent this weekend with seven of my best friends from college. Eleven years ago ten of us started a tradition of doing an annual Guys Weekend. We lived to together in college for years but after graduation, we scattered. Now we live all over the country, and around the world: Denver, Richmond, Houston, New York City, Palo Alto, St. Paul, Grand Rapids, Toronto, Tokyo, and Chicago. Since school, there’s never been more than a couple of us living in the same state at the same time.
My business partner has the opposite situation. Many of his best friends from college all live in the same town. Many of them attend church together. They do business together. They have a rich and integrated whole. Our group has always been more geographically fragmented.
We’ve worked to stay in touch. We’ve tried doing group conference calls. We’ve tried doing regular email updates. We’ve done fantasy football. Each of these efforts worked for a bit but eventually fell apart. We were all busy building our careers and building our families. The thing that has most consistently worked for us are these annual weekends
“Researchers have noticed a trend in photographs taken of people interacting. When female friends are talking to each other, they do it face to face. But guys stand side by side, looking out at the world together.” Our group is no different. Most of our weekends haveanchored on some kind of adventure or activity together. We’ve hiked, gone whitewater rafting, messed around on jet skis or something like that.
We’re usually together for three nights, Thursday to Sunday. At the beginning of the weekend, our conversations typically revolve around mass media the issues of the day, those things we share in common despite our distance. This year we talked a lot about sexual harassment, race, Trump, kneeling during the national anthem. We liberally sprinkle opinions on college football rankings throughout. We joke with each other. We laugh a lot. We fart out loud more regularly than we would in other company.
During our dinners, we always do “the Updates.” This isn’t an official term. We go around the table and each friend gives an account of their life over the past year. What’s happening in their career? In their health? In their marriage? With their kids? In their spiritual life? These updates last between thirty and ninety minutes each. Sometimes they end in laughs. Sometimes they end in tears. Sometimes they end in prayer.
All of us call ourselves followers of Jesus, though our traditions are different: Catholic, Presbyterian, Coptic, non-denominational. Each man is involved in his church, but this year a good number feel like we are treading water spiritually, rather than thriving.
Our group has faced its share of hardship. Lost jobs. The deaths of parents. Two of our friends have had lost children. Two are working through the challenges of kids with severe disabilities and chronic illnesses. There are other tragedies and and challenges that we just talk about in the group. We don’t necessarily try to solve each other’s problems. We listen, let the guy know he’s being heard, and ask questions — sometimes to understand, sometimes to challenge each other.
These guys are some of the great treasures of my life. I inevitably return from a weekend with them feeling thankful and often inspired to up my game as a husband, a father, a leader, and as a man.
Someone may develop a robot you can talk to that tricks your mind into feeling better. But no machine will replace a true, real friend.
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