The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.
Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Productive People used an image of the ladder of success, which he borrowed from Thomas Merton, who wrote, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” That seems to apply to many American men who were sold on the idea that the ladder of success referred to achieving career goals, only to find that once they achieved (or abandoned) their career goals, they had nothing of personal value.
Billy Baker writes in the Boston Globe:
LET’S START WITH THE MOMENT I realized I was already a loser, which was just after I was more or less told that I was destined to become one.
I’d been summoned to an editor’s office at the Globe Magazine with the old “We have a story we think you’d be perfect for.” This is how editors talk when they’re about to con you into doing something you don’t want to do.
Here was the pitch: We want you to write about how middle-aged men have no friends.
Excuse me? I have plenty of friends. Are you calling me a loser? You are.
The editor told me there was all sorts of evidence out there about how men, as they age, let their close friendships lapse, and that that fact can cause all sorts of problems and have a terrible impact on their health.
I told the editor I’d think about it. This is how reporters talk when they’re trying to get out of something they don’t want to do. As I walked back to my desk in the newsroom — a distance of maybe 100 yards — I quickly took stock of my life to try to prove to myself that I was not, in fact, perfect for this story.
First of all, there was my buddy Mark. We went to high school together, and I still talk to him all the time, and we hang out all the . . . Wait, how often do we actually hang out? Maybe four or five times a year?
And then there was my other best friend from high school, Rory, and . . . I genuinely could not remember the last time I’d seen him. Had it already been a year? Entirely possible.
There were all those other good friends who feel as if they’re still in my lives because we keep tabs on one another via social media, but as I ran down the list of those I’d consider real, true, lifelong friends, I realized that it had been years since I’d seen many of them, even decades for a few.
By the time I got back to my desk, I realized that I was indeed perfect for this story, not because I was unusual in any way, but because my story is very, very typical. And as I looked into what that means, I realized that in the long term, I was heading down a path that was very, very dangerous.
Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States, has said many times in recent years that the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.
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.
“YOU SHOULD USE THIS story suggestion as a call to do something about it.”
That’s Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, a Cambridge psychiatrist, and I had reached out to him because he and his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Olds, literally wrote the book on this topic, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century.
He agreed that my story was very typical. When people with children become overscheduled, they don’t shortchange their children, they shortchange their friendships. “And the public health dangers of that are incredibly clear,” he says.
Beginning in the 1980s, Schwartz says, study after study started showing that . . .