We all know loneliness is not a good thing. At the very beginning, God told us that it is not good to be alone (Gen. 2:18). But perhaps it is beyond “not good,” – harmful, detrimental even.
That’s what Billy Baker from the Boston Globe discovered as he researched the effects of loneliness in his article, The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.
He writes, “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.”
Through his research, Baker identifies himself in the problem, realizing he hasn’t seen some of his “closest” friends in years. What is interesting to note, however, is that this loneliness and isolation is felt even among men with wives and families.
Lack of Friendship
It seems the real problem might not be “isolation” but a lack of friendship. Psychiatrist Richard S. Schwartz has studied this now typical phenomenon among middle-aged family-men. “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.”
Here are those health dangers, not to mention the effects on mental health:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Early death (even after correcting for other lifestyle choices)
Male and Female Relationships
Another important point in this conversation is that (as we know) men and women are created differently. Therefore, they experience relationships differently. This is not to say that loneliness isn’t a danger for women, too, but that women naturally maintain their relationships better than men do. This is at least in part because what appears to be most meaningful to women is conversation, which can be done over the phone and from a distance.
However, activity is what bonds men together, which is why “studies have shown, men tend to make their deepest friends through periods of intense engagement, like school or military service or sports.” Unfortunately, as men and their responsibilities grow, the chances to engage in those kinds of side-by-side activities wane, or at the least, require a lot of effort. Baker even described feeling guilty about running off with the guys during his free time instead of using it to be with his family. That’s noble – and I’m sure his wife appreciates his consideration – but as we’re seeing, that might not always be the best choice for his health.
“I’m very happy in my life,” Baker says, “If I need someone to confide in, I have my wife. All the pieces are here, except one — the guys. I’d like to think they’re also missing me and are just locked into this same prison of commitments. But I don’t want to wait until we’re all retired and can reconnect on a golf course. It feels silly to wait that long, and thanks to this stupid story, I know it’s quite dangerous.”
What Can We Do?
So what do we do? One practical tip Baker describes is to establish a regular time for this side-by-side type of friendship. Pick a day with a few of your friends and meet every week at that time and do something together. Make it a standing appointment so that the importance of relationship doesn’t get swept away in the busyness of life. I would also recommend taking a long, hard look at your obligations. If you don’t have time to tend to your physical, mental, and/or spiritual health – and relationships are part of that – It’s time to drop some commitments.
We need friends. We need confidants (Proverbs 17:17, 27:5-6), companions (Ecc. 4:9-10), comforters (Job 2:11, 16:20-21), encouragers (Proverbs 27:17, 1 Thess. 5:11). The Bible is full of verses like these exhorting us in our friendships, showing us who and who not to have as friends, and outlining the many, many reasons we need others in our lives. Jesus Himself during his time on earth developed deep, rich friendships with three of His disciples, and also calls us “friend” (John 15:15). How important, then, this kind of relationship must be!
But it is hard. Even as people of God and members of local churches we fall into the same rut as Baker – overscheduled, overworked, and lonely. I encourage you to make the time. Find the regular, standing appointment. Fellowship with the men in your church. Don’t be afraid of the awkwardness or effort it takes to do this. Modern research is showing us what God has told us all along: It is not good for man to be alone.
For more resources on Christian friendship, I recommend The Company We Keep by Jonathan Holmes or The Friendship Factor by Alan McGinnis. Or just get started by picking up your phone and dialing a friend.
Thanks to my Executive Assistant, Sarah Perez, for her contribution to this article.