Mental health benefits for men of having close friendships

Comedian and Author Max Dickins was about to propose to his girlfriend when he realised he didn’t have any best man options.

Spending all his time between work, partner and family had destroyed his circle of friends.

So Max looked into the situation and found a lot of people in the same boat. His new book Billy No Mates is an honest, funny look at the dire state of male friendships.

Do men statistically have fewer friends than women?

A mental health charity in the UK did research asking men how many close friends they have.

One in three had none.

They also asked them how many people they could talk to about a medical, personal or work problem. Half of them had no one. There is a thing social scientists call network shrinkage. As we get older our social circle decreases. Over time men’s circles get a great deal smaller than women’s do.

Why are men struggling with close friendships, and what can we do about it?

A big thing is the way we are around one another. We use banter. Joshing, ribbing, taking the piss. It’s great fun, but does it create a culture between men where they feel they have permission to take friendship beyond fun?

Men often don’t show their full selves because that would give mates ammo. Competition, hierarchies and status are very important to men. We don’t like to be seen as lower status, so we may not admit when things aren’t great. Plus, there’s a taboo against showing affection. We struggle with something as simple as telling a mate we like them.

Yeah, if you are blaming men’s lower friendship rates on gender norms, it’s very hard to argue that these haven’t softened over time. If you compare the early 70s to now, it’s pretty different, yet the problem doesn’t seem to have improved. It suggests something fundamental is going on.

A bloke called Dr Robin Dunbar claims the male and female social worlds work very differently. Female friendships tend to be face-to-face, based on talk, and emotional disclosure. Male friendships tend to be less face-to-face and more side-by-side with much less emotional disclosure. It’s more about sharing space and activities.

A close friend for men is someone they feel comfortable doing stuff with. When you ask men who their best friends are it’s often more of a physical, active thing rather than a discussive form of intimacy.

So when men get divorced, laid off, bereaved or retire, men suffer worse physical and mental health outcomes than women. because they’re more isolated on average. We often don’t notice we don’t have deeper friends.

Yeah, nuance is really important here because I wouldn’t wanna be friends with someone who couldn’t do some banter. It wouldn’t be fun, but I suppose the point I’m making in the book is about having gears. Can you get out of third? Sometimes you need to go into fourth and fifth. I only had one gear. Always trying to be funny. It ended up putting a moat around me. It’s just about making sure you have options.

Why is a lack of friends bad?

There’s been huge research into the effects of loneliness on our physical health. Julia Holstead, a famous academic on the subject, discovered that being lonely is worse for you than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Worse than being obese. It’s worse than drinking excessively.

There have been lots of studies finding connections between loneliness, depression and anxiety. In the UK, the Samaritans charity found the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide. It’s a complex situation, but they put the lack of close connections as one of the fundamental causes.

Then there’s the big study by Robert Waldinger Harvard, following people over a whole lifetime. Social connection was the big factor for people living longer and reporting being happy. There are few things more important to our physical and mental life than having friends. But many men don’t prioritise it.

It’s hugely important but we treat it like a “nice to have”. Continue reading

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News category: Analysis and Comment, Palmerston.

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