A few years ago, four of my male friends and I spontaneously organised a trip to the Peak District. None of us is exactly Bear Grylls, but we packed some hiking boots, emptied Sainsbury’s and committed to 48 hours in the relative wilderness of Derbyshire. I can’t quite remember how we came up with idea, but we obviously felt that spending a weekend in a lonely, rural cottage would be an important thing to do.
Something fascinating happened on that trip, though the schedule was pretty mundane. We spent most of the time drinking and gently humiliating each other, as you might expect. There was a failed attempt to cook a beef Wellington and an extremely ill-judged hike that ended with an unfortunate trespassing incident. But that wasn’t the extent of things.
Though we had all been good friends since university, we had never been away together. It was liberating to leave London and deposit ourselves on a misty, northern moor. As five men sitting around a fireplace in the middle of nowhere, we somehow felt freer. Embarrassing concerns and old grudges were released from ancient resting places. We were able to examine our souls.
I stayed up all night with one mate, discussing how we felt a little trapped by our lives, which had become prematurely constrained. I wanted to be a writer and foreign correspondent but found myself chained to an editorial desk job. He had spent several years working in finance but yearned to do something more fulfilling. It was one of those rare conversations I’ve had that permanently impressed itself upon my consciousness. I’ll never forget its power – nor the extraordinary impact that being away with a group of close male friends can have, creating an atmosphere that was at once fairly savage and deeply comfortable.
This trip, I realised a few months later, was the antithesis of loneliness. By then, though, I’d moved to New York, having obtained the coveted correspondent role. My life swung violently from one pole to the other – London, surrounded by old and very old friends, to Manhattan, surrounded by strangers. I was single and almost friendless. For the first time in my life, I was truly lonely.
So lonely that I began to crave the perfunctory smile of the waitress at my local diner. Each morning, I would look forward to the familiar nod of a corner shop owner who sold me the New York Times. I also developed some strange habits. Long, nocturnal walks through the city and strange, pornographic meanderings on my laptop. At times, I took masochistic pleasure in feeling so isolated, letting the city wash over my sense of self, feeling like an extra in an Edward Hopper painting. But mostly it was just miserable.
My expectations of New York – the people I’d meet, the conversations I’d have – were enormous. So much of the city’s televisual myth revolves around friendships: Girls, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and, of course, Friends. But where was my devoted group of hilarious, dysfunctional pals to help me out of second gear?
Loneliness is often compared to hunger. It’s a lack of emotional sustenance, the physical pleasure of being in the company of someone who cares about you. But urban isolation is its own type of starvation, and New York is perhaps the loneliest place to be lonely. I’d walk through SoHo or the East Village on a Saturday morning, marvelling at how busy and engaged everyone seemed to be. How did they all seem to know each other? Why didn’t they want to know me?
My apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, overlooks the city’s shimmering panorama. It is one of the world’s most thrilling views – unless you are feeling lonely. Then the lights mock you, each twinkle a symbol of people connecting with one another; drinking, laughing, kissing. Everyone except me.
Loneliness also feels a lot like depression, though the two are not the same. One study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that the majority of those who report feeling lonely are not clinically depressed, though there are overlaps. As for me, I had no chemical or pathological reason to be unhappy during those six months in New York. I was like a computer that had been unplugged from the internet. I just needed to reconnect. I needed friends.
This sensation diminished over time. I found a girlfriend, and I made enough friends to get by. I’m happy again. But the experience got me interested in the subject of loneliness, so I began to read and write about it. I read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. I delved into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, through which a wide seam of loneliness and disconnection runs. I quickly realised I wasn’t alone. Millions of others were as lonely as I had been – many of them in the largest, most thrilling cities in the world, struggling with lives of outward success and inner desperation.
I also realised there was an element of my predicament that had been quite specifically male. Loneliness isn’t gendered, but men in particular tend to struggle to express deep feelings and form meaningful connections. Many of us find it easier to talk about football or politics than to admit to suffering from a low sex drive or feeling undervalued at work. We don’t know who to tell these things, or how to say them. This is why some men flock obsessively to secular evangelists such as Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, who fill the fraternal vacuum with rigorous examinations of the male psyche and spread their gospel through podcasts and YouTube.
The Boys’ Club
Men aren’t good at talking to each other, or asking for help. This may be a cliché, but it’s true. Personally, I would rather walk around lost for half an hour than risk looking incompetent by asking for directions. Every girlfriend I’ve had has found this baffling. I need Peak District levels of comfort and familiarity to open up to another man. The majority of my friends are female, because I generally find the company of women to be more relaxed and engaging. But to help me negotiate my darkest, most brutal emotions, real-life male company is essential. WhatsApp threads just don’t cut it, no matter how witty the banter.
Recent research confirms this. A 2017 study at the University of Oxford showed that men bond better through face-to-face contact and activities, whereas women find it much easier to hold onto an emotional connection through phone conversations. Our social structures function differently, too. According to a study in the journal Plos One, male friendships are more likely to flourish in groups, whereas women favour one-to-one interactions.
“What determined whether [friendships] survived with girls was whether they made the effort to talk more to each other on the phone,” said Robin Dunbar, who led the Oxford study. “What held up [male] friendships was doing stuff together – going to a football match, going to the pub for a drink, playing five-a-side. They had to make the effort. It was a very striking sex difference.”
The conundrum I faced last year was how to make new male friends, a task that seems to get more difficult with age. I’ve only made two close male friends since leaving university, now almost 10 years ago. There have been plenty of mates, colleagues, drinking companions and holiday bromances, but no one I would call up if my life was falling apart. As men enter their forties, the situation often gets worse. Many become siloed by family life, moving to the suburbs, socialising in couples, maintaining a solid professional network but unable to access the kind of raw male companionship they need. And many men are far more reliant on their partners for emotional support than they’d like to admit. “You really have to work to keep it all going,” says one fortysomething friend, who sees his mates less and less often since they all started families. “A Christmas drink or annual reunion is fun, but it isn’t enough. Getting people to commit when they’re dealing with young kids is a nightmare, though.”
How do you make male friends in your thirties and forties? How do you create those bonding experiences? It’s surprisingly hard. You may meet people at work, or perhaps through a sports team. But, all too often, you come up against a barrier. When I was first in New York, I’d quite often come across guys I liked – we’d even go for a few beers. But then what? The second man date feels a bit odd. It’s just not clear what comes next.
Some of the causes of modern loneliness relate to the extent to which we have strayed from our tribal, evolutionary roots. Technology is one culprit, of course. You know the theory: by linking us all together, social media has somehow managed to drive us further apart. In a study of adults aged between 19 and 32, those who reported spending more than two hours a day on social media were twice as likely to describe feeling “left out” or isolated. Our digital ties can feel like the real thing, but they often turn out to be weak and unsatisfying – ghostly imitations of human contact.
Hyper-urbanisation and the decay of traditional communities is another. So many of us are now “bowling alone”, as US political scientist Robert D Putnam put it in his book about the decline of civic life. More and more people are taking up bowling, he pointed out, but fewer and fewer are doing so in organised teams and leagues.
I grew up in a close Jewish community in north London. As a child, I knew the names of at least half the people on my street. My grandparents lived six doors down, and my cousins were on the next road. I often found this gossipy, village-style life claustrophobic at the time, but I’d trade it in a moment for the anonymity of my last four apartment blocks. I haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a neighbour in a decade. I wouldn’t know where to leave a set of spare keys.
One of the biggest hurdles to building modern friendships is time, an increasingly rare commodity. Friendships need time like a plant needs water. A recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships estimated that, on average, it takes about 90 hours of time with someone before you consider them a real friend, and 200 to become “close”.
But it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity. Friendships require deep time – the nights when you’re in the mood for five drinks, not one, or the wide-open Sundays when you feel like concocting a flamboyant roast dinner, rather than just catching up over a burger. One bender is worth 100 quick halves after work.
Some men are working to find solutions to these issues. I’m ambivalent about Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s politics, but the fact that he and many like him have become so popular is a sign that men are yearning for an emotional and profound conversation. I recently came across the Evryman Project, founded by Dan Doty, a film-maker and nature guide who observed in his work that men were desperate to find a way to reconnect with each other. The project leads men’s trips into the American wilderness of the Berkshires, say, or Yellowstone National Park; there, they meditate and hike, but their most important task is to sit in a circle and bare their souls. “The simple act of explicitly getting together with the intention of opening up, to share all the stuff you don’t normally share, is incredibly powerful,” says Doty. “It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that.”
Most of Evryman’s participants are between 26 and 42, the period when men leave behind their adolescent circles and strike out alone into an unforgiving world. Doty’s goal is to get men in social situations to go straight for the emotional kill. He uses the following equation: vulnerability x time = depth of connection. By amplifying their vulnerability levels, Doty believes that he can reduce the amount of time it takes for men to form real friendships. “We could go to the bar and talk about baseball, then maybe open up a little bit,” he says. “Or – in order for this to benefit me, so I can enjoy my life and be healthy – we could just cut the shit: this is who I am. We could create bonds that mean something, just go right there.”
I’ve attended a couple of Evryman group sessions in New York and, while I find them fascinating, I’m too weighed down by British cynicism to engage fully. I want my friendships to be organic, rather than forged in the New Age microwave oven of organised wilderness bonding.
In an ideal world, Doty acknowledges, his organisation wouldn’t need to fill the friendship and connectivity gap in people’s lives. But in this world, for many men, projects such as Evryman are increasingly essential. For me, the lesson of my own experience of loneliness is that we need to put close friendships at the centre of our life plans – to work towards them strategically, wholeheartedly and relentlessly, in the same way one might work towards a marriage or a career. I believe that every one of us needs a cottage somewhere, up on a misty moor, filled with people we trust. Otherwise, we’ll all end up bowling alone.