by Tom Nicholson - 9 min read
Are you lonely? You're not alone.
Although people may have hundreds or even thousands of online 'friends', study after study has shown that more men are living lives coloured by loneliness than ever before. Worse than that, we'll do anything to try and ignore it.
Granted, there was a time when loneliness could be seen as a good thing. It spurred you to reach out, make connections, and improve your chances of survival by sticking in a group. Unfortunately, these days, a sense of isolation (ironically) comes accompanied by alarming statistics.
"Feeling lonely is supposed to protect us by encouraging social bonds, but in our more modern, technological world, it can lead to a whole host of health issues," says JP Purnell, service operations and research manager at CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably).
In caveman terms, the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that would at one point have helped you defeat a woolly mammoth now feeds on itself and can lead to a spiral of negative emotions.
For those who live alone, work from home or are too busy to see friends, it's easy to end up cut adrift from the world. And it's a hard thing to admit to. Who wants to have to say, out loud, "I'd like some more mates, please?" But doing so might just save your life.
The Silent Epidemic Of Male Loneliness
According to a 2019 survey by YouGov in the UK, almost one in five men (18 percent) admitted to having no close friends, and one in three (32 percent) said they didn't count anyone as a best friend. For women, these figures were lower at 12 and 24 percent.
More worryingly, in the same survey, 44 percent of men said they felt lonely "sometimes, often, or all of the time" compared to 50 percent of women. The conclusion is that while men are more likely to experience loneliness, they're also less likely to admit it.
These findings are backed up by a 2017 study for the Jo Cox Commission, which found that 10 percent of men who felt lonely preferred to keep it hidden, resulting in some describing it as "a silent epidemic."
"It's a lot harder to dislodge the little voice in your head telling you that you shouldn't look for help. What, no friends? What's wrong with you?"
The problem of loneliness is only made worse thanks to our inability to reach out. And all the experts agree, this macho attitude of stuffing your feelings down, or ignoring them, is not only outdated, it's also downright dangerous.
"Large scale studies have shown that loneliness is one of the most unhealthy things that humans can experience," says Purnell. "It can decrease both our physical and mental wellbeing."
Some scientists even go as far as to say that loneliness is around twice as deadly as obesity and about as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's also intimately linked to a host of mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.
It seems men are particularly ill-equipped to acknowledge, much less handle, loneliness. Making one of the biggest challenges we face recognising the signs, not only in ourselves but also in others.
How You Know If You're Lonely
Loneliness isn't just being on your own a lot. You might be as happy as a pig in its own filth doing your own thing most days. In fact, a certain amount of quality time alone is critical to your wellbeing.
Instead, loneliness is the feeling that your social needs – that is, how much you want to hang out with people and feel connected to them – aren't met by reality. Like wanting to talk but having no one to call.
It's largely a mental perception, though there are physical symptoms too which can be similar to those of depression and anxiety: disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, mood swings, boredom and irritability.
"People who are experiencing chronic loneliness and are on the downward spiral of isolation find it more and more difficult to get out of it," says Purnell. "In this state, your brain misinterprets social cues and causes you to actively distance yourself, even though that's the opposite of what you need."
Where loneliness comes from is complicated. One study had men name the age at which they felt most lonely; the average answer was 35. That points to a time in life when men tend to drift away from larger groups of friends made at school and university or from shared houses afterwards, as people couple up and stop hanging out as regularly. Slowly, real bonding opportunities become harder to find and less comfortable to admit to needing.
It's tied up with the kind of stoical manhood we're supposed to be leaving behind, but it's a lot harder to dislodge the little voice in your head telling you that you shouldn't look for help. What, no friends? What's wrong with you?
Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to suss out whether someone you know is feeling lonely – or to pull yourself out of it.
Combating Male Loneliness
Check in on the men in your life. Friends, uncles, brothers, old flatmates and colleagues. Drop them a text, give them a call or even send them a meme. Better yet, organise a get-together. Talk about fantasy football, or some daft thing you remember doing together, or what you've been watching on TV – anything. It's a foot in the door.
Check In With Yourself
Often, it's hard to know when you're feeling lonely. Something feels a bit off, but you don't know what. So ask yourself a few questions. Do you struggle to connect with other people? Do you have someone you can rely on? Do you feel isolated no matter how many people you're around? Do you feel bad about yourself? Writing down the answers can help you see things clearly and formulate a plan.
We all know the reflex to being asked if you're alright is to breezily say, "Yeah, fine, thanks." Even if that's not the case. A second "how have you been?" can make all the difference. Don't be scared of what they might say, and don't feel like you've got to fix anything – just listen, and empathise.
If You Feel It, Admit it
This is the big one. Without understanding how you're feeling and making a point that you want to change, it's hard for anything to happen. Vulnerability is scary, but you'd be surprised how ready and willing to talk about these things people are. Why not chat it over with a therapist or, if you feel in crisis, reach out to a charity like Samaritans.
It might be doing voluntary work, signing up to a fitness class or joining a five-a-side league. The good news is, you don't even have to be particularly good at whatever it is you pick. All that matters is you put yourself out there and invest the time in making connections. Struck up a conversation while in the foetal position after a HIIT class? Suggest grabbing a recovery juice.