A few years ago, four of my male friends and I spontaneously organised a trip to the Peak District. 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.
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. This trip, I realised a few months later, was the antithesis of loneliness. My life swung violently from one pole to the other — London, surrounded 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.
The boys’ club
I also developed some strange habits. Long, nocturnal walks through the city and strange, pornographic meanderings on my laptop. At times, I took needs 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. But where was my devoted group of hilarious, dysfunctional pals to help me out of second gear?
Loneliness is often for to hunger. It's a lack of real sustenance, guy 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. How did they all seem to know each other? Loneliness feels a lot like depression, though the two are not the same.
Then the lights mock you, each twinkle a symbol of people connecting with one another; drinking, laughingkissing. Everyone except me. Loneliness also feels a lot like depressionthough the two are not the same. One study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that the majority of those who report lonely 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 company a computer that had been unplugged from the internet. I just needed to reconnect. I needed friends. This sensation diminished over christmas. 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. 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.
Helpful apps for times when you are feeling lonely
I also realised there was an element of my predicament that had been quite specifically male. 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 thingsor 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.
Personally, I would rather walk around lost for half an hour than risk looking incompetent by asking for directions.
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. Recent research confirms this.
A study at the University of Oxford showed that men bond better through face-to-face contact and activitieswhereas 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 Onemale friendships are more likely to flourish in groups, whereas women favour one-to-one interactions.
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. 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. How do you make male friends in your thirties and forties? How do you create those bonding experiences? You may meet people at work, or perhaps through a sports team. But, all too often, you come up against a barrier. 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. Our digital ties can feel like the real thing, but they often turn out to be weak and unsatisfying — ghostly imitations of human contact.
One of the biggest hurdles to building modern friendships is time, an increasingly rare commodity.
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. AsI 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 wouldn't know where to leave a set of spare keys.
Friendships need time like a plant needs water. One bender is worth quick halves after guy. Some men are working to find solutions to these issues. 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. By amplifying their christmas levels, For believes that he can reduce the amount of real it takes for men to form real friendships.
We could create bonds that mean something, just go right there. We need to put close friendships at the centre of our life plans, to work towards them strategically. I want my friendships to be organic, rather than forged in the New Age company oven of organised wilderness bonding. But in this lonely, 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 needs 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.
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