“At the innermost core of all loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for union with one’s lost self.” – Brendan Behan
For millennia, men have enjoyed a disproportionate amount of wealth and power. Although the gender gap is now narrowing, women still earn roughly 74 cents for every dollar men earn in Canada. Part of this gap may be due to discrimination, but another explanation is that women might be more likely to choose life-satisfaction over higher earnings. Although men have held political and economic superiority, their success has lead to suffering from higher levels of loneliness. In Lonely at the Top, Thomas Joiner looks at the high cost of men’s success, showing that men’s loneliness is caused by their privilege. He states:
Much attention is focused, rightly, on men’s disproportionate share of wealth and power; too little attention is spent on men’s disproportionate share of misery, one index of which is high suicide rates.
He argues that the loneliness and resulting misery are caused by ignoring relationships in favor of instrumental activities such as efficient problem-solving and a “go-getter” attitude to goal attainment. Joiner states that higher levels of instrumentality contributes to lower levels of depression in men compared to women, but women’s greater focus on relationships are a protective factor later in life when men are more likely to suffer from fatal levels of loneliness leading to suicide or other health complications: “Loneliness is as strong a risk factor for illness and death as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure,” as discovered by a study.
Joiner’s message is clear: men are privileged, instrumentally oriented, therefore neglect facilitating strong deep social ties, resulting in likely suffering from chronic loneliness later in life, perhaps without even recognizing how bad it is until it’s too late. Solutions to the problem require men to focus on maintaining and deepening meaningful social ties, particularly later in life or during retirement when they are most at risk. Joiner recommends hobbies, regular gatherings with friends, and even using Facebook, which he regards as a useful platform to stay connected with others, despite it’s potential for overuse.
In terms of my own research, the social transition faced by veterans returning to civilian life puts them at risk of experiencing loneliness. One Canadian veteran recounts his experience transitioning into law school after the military. He states:
“[At law school] you’re in a large group, but ultimately you’re alone…. In the military you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.”
In terms of regaining a sense of belonging, veterans I spoke with found that non-traditional veterans groups were valuable. Treble Victor is one of the groups several individuals found helped them reconnect in civilian life. One individual stated:
“The experience [of transition] had been marked by quasi-isolation and challenges to connect with people. When I got to Treble Victor, I just walked in the room and the group felt very familiar and extremely welcoming, it was very much a social setting that was similar to what I had experienced while I was serving, so the comradery, the openness to connect, and the sense of trust, it’s like meeting family you never met.”
The ability to connect with others facilitates a positive sense of social identity which is necessary for individuals to feel a sense of belonging and significance. As Hugh Mackay writes in The Good Life, “…our identity is social at least as much as personal.” Men’s identities have been traditionally tied to instrumental career attainment, neglecting the maintenance of quality interpersonal ties. This is why, as Joiner says, men are “lonely at the top.” Retirement or career transitions can also trigger this state – especially in the case of veterans, whose life in the military facilitated deep ties to those they served with, but leaves them often struggling to reconnect in an individualistic civilian world.
As stated in the beginning of this post, loneliness can be a deep and powerful yearning for one’s lost self. Regaining this lost self means reconnecting to one’s social identity. Men who lose meaningful social ties due to an overemphasis on instrumentalism may find themselves lonely at the top. In addition, those who leave the military lose the social identity formed through deep ties to those they served with. Loneliness is a significant risk-factor for suicide, as well as mortality through physical illness. Men need to recognize this is a significant issue and take action to work on their interpersonal relations. Lastly, as a society we need to recognize this issue and facilitate men’s social connectedness.