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The phrase, “it’s lonely at the top” suggests success causes loneliness. But what does the research say on whether successful people are actually at risk of loneliness?
According to Thomas Joiner in Lonely at the Top, success can cause loneliness when people neglect the quality and quantity of their close social relations in favor of focusing on instrumental goals associated with success.
Although being successful does not guarantee loneliness, it can be a risk factor for loneliness, especially among successful older men.
Let’s take a closer look at what causes this form of loneliness.
Career Success Among Men
For millennia, men have enjoyed a disproportionate amount of wealth and power. Although the gender gap is now narrowing, women still earn roughly 74 cents for every dollar men earn.
Part of this gap may be due to discrimination, but another explanation is that women might be more likely to choose life-satisfaction over higher earnings.
Although men have held political and economic superiority, their success has lead to suffering from higher levels of loneliness. In Lonely at the Top, Thomas Joiner looks at the high cost of men’s success, showing that men’s loneliness is caused by their privilege. He states:
Much attention is focused, rightly, on men’s disproportionate share of wealth and power; too little attention is spent on men’s disproportionate share of misery, one index of which is high suicide rates.
How Success Causes Loneliness Among Men
Thomas Joiner argues that the loneliness and resulting misery are caused by ignoring relationships in favor of instrumental activities such as efficient problem-solving and a “go-getter” attitude to goal attainment.
Instrumental goals include focusing on getting ahead financially and out-competing others in the workplace. They include focusing on transactions over social relations.
This mentality is highlighted in the movie Glengarry GlenRoss:
ABC. “A”, always. “B”, be. “C”, closing. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. Always be closing…[.] you can’t play the man’s game, you can’t close them, and then tell your wife your troubles.
Joiner states that higher levels of instrumentality give a sense of purpose and contribute to lower levels of depression in men compared to women, but women’s greater focus on relationships is a protective factor later in life.
After retirement, men are more likely to suffer the effects of their relational neglect. The competitive career orientation may drive successful men in their careers, but this success comes at a high cost.
There is also a physical cost of men’s success, potentially leading to physical health complications.
As discovered in a study on loneliness:
“Loneliness is as strong a risk factor for illness and death as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure,”
In addition to the physical costs, there are mental health costs. Upon retirement, men not only lose a sense of purpose, but they also lose many of their casual acquaintances at the workplace. This double loss increases the risk of suicide due to feeling isolated and lacking purpose. You can read more about this topic in my articles on suicide and mental health.
Joiner’s message is clear: men are privileged, instrumentally oriented, therefore neglect facilitating strong deep social ties, resulting in likely suffering from chronic loneliness later in life, perhaps without even recognizing how bad it is until it’s too late.
Solutions to the problem require men to focus on maintaining and deepening meaningful social ties, particularly later in life, or during retirement when they are most at risk.
Joiner recommends hobbies, regular gatherings with friends, and even using Facebook, which Joiner regards as a useful platform to stay connected with others, despite its potential for overuse. I talk more about how to use social media in a healthy way in my article on social media addiction.
Loneliness Among Male Veterans
In terms of my own research, the social transition faced by veterans returning to civilian life puts them at risk of experiencing loneliness.
One Canadian veteran recounts his experience transitioning into law school after the military. He states:
“[At law school] you’re in a large group, but ultimately you’re alone…. In the military you can bet someone is always looking out for you… you’re always accountable to one another – which is a great thing – but when you take that away it can be isolating.”
In terms of regaining a sense of belonging, veterans I spoke with found that non-traditional veterans groups were valuable. Treble Victor is one of the groups several individuals found helped them reconnect in civilian life. One individual stated:
“The experience [of transition] had been marked by quasi-isolation and challenges to connect with people. When I got to Treble Victor, I just walked in the room and the group felt very familiar and extremely welcoming, it was very much a social setting that was similar to what I had experienced while I was serving, so the comradery, the openness to connect, and the sense of trust, it’s like meeting family you never met.”
Although this issue is common among all veterans, it was especially difficult for those entering the highly individualistic white-collar professions. The Treble Victor veterans entrepreneurial group is a creative solution to this problem and can perhaps serve as a model for combating loneliness among civilian business-persons as well.
If you’re interested in reading more of my research on veterans, you can check out my articles on veterans in transition.
Preventing the Loneliness that Comes With Success
Although success may be a risk factor for loneliness, there are ways to prevent this issue before it starts. This involves focusing on the quality and quantity of one’s close social relations.
The ability to connect with others facilitates a positive sense of social identity which is necessary for individuals to feel a sense of belonging and significance.
As Hugh Mackay writes in The Good Life:
“…our identity is social at least as much as personal.”
Men’s identities have been traditionally tied to instrumental career attainment, neglecting the maintenance of quality interpersonal ties. This is why, as Joiner says, men are “lonely at the top.”
Retirement or career transitions can also trigger this state – especially in the case of veterans, whose life in the military facilitated deep ties to those they served with, but leaves them often struggling to reconnect in an individualistic civilian world.
Loneliness is a risk factor for success, especially among older men. Preventing loneliness requires one to focus on the quality and quantity of one’s close social relations.
Men who lose meaningful social ties due to an overemphasis on instrumentalism may find themselves lonely at the top.
In addition, those who leave the military lose the social identity formed through deep ties to those they served with.
This is important because loneliness is a significant risk factor for suicide, as well as mortality through physical illness.
Men need to recognize this is a significant issue and take action to work on their interpersonal relations. Lastly, as a society, we need to acknowledge this issue and facilitate men’s social connectedness.
If you’re interested in reading more about how social connection contributes to better overall health, you can check out my article, What Is Social Health?
There are a lot of men in AA and other recovery circles who are probably not experiencing that problem, a great benefit of being sober. I never really thought about the issue of men being lonely but it makes a lot of sense, thank you for exploring with us!
Thank you for this comment! I agree that AA has a duel benefit of helping both alcoholism and social isolation.
Important and an article relevant to many veterans. Having treated veterans in groups who were traumatized and released medically, the issue of shame is followed closely by loneliness fueled by an emotional disconnection from self – so it is virtually impossible for them to connect with anybody else. They were well-trained to be emotionless and externally-focussed and many of them excelled during their careers in relative isolation and, sometimes, in s life of quiet desperation. The challenge for these men is to learn the value and the skill of emotional connection without fears of being emasculated.
Thank you for your comment, Dr. Whelan! Hope you are well and hope the winter is starting to let up a bit out East!
From what I’ve seen, the Veterans Transition Program has been a very helpful style of group therapy. How do your group therapies resemble or differ from the VTP, and what have you found works best for facilitating emotional connection?
In Germany, we have this social institution called “Stammtisch”. A literal translation would be “trunk table”; it is the fable in the pub where the trunk of the patrons, the regulars, sit down and socialize on a regular basis. Traditionally, it is a men’s only round, where men can share in things they wouldn’t say or do around women, especially their wives, if they are married. Every “Stammtisch” has its own conditions for joining, though they are rarely tough. The Stammtisch at my dad’s usual place has a mug for every member with their name engraved on the lid. This particular Stammtisch also organizes the Kärwaumzug, which I described in my recent Mardi Gras post, a new year’s eve party (for everyone) and also a summer solstice party (for everyone). Mardi Gras itself and most summer parties are left to the voluntary fire brigade, though most members of the Stammtisch are also part of that.
Since Germany has pacifism anchored in it’s constitution, we don’t have many combat veterans, so I don’t know how well the Stammtisch or the voluntary fire brigade fare in integrating these specifically troubled people, but they did help us make Germany our home.
Very interesting! I had never heard of this organization. From what I see, this is exactly what we need to promote more of. Thank you for sharing!
There are many negative connotations to “Stammtischkultur”: excessive drinking and spreading uninformed, simplistic political opinions are the two most commonly encountered. As with anything, there are two sides to the item. But judging from my experiences with it, the benefits overweigh the drawbacks
Women’s ability to connect with other women may explain why we tend to live longer.
It’s interesting that although women have higher rates of depression, they have lower rates of suicide. The greater focus on building and maintaining social connections does seem to be a major resilience-factor for women.
I don’t believe, that by connecting with one’s social world can resolve one’s feelings of loneliness, beccause loneliness is personal, meaning that it is, experienced by the individuals alone, and, getting connected with the outside world, may help ease that loneliness temporarily, but, I do believe, that in order to completely, resolve the loneliness that one feels, one MUST start working on one’s own self, at least, that would be, from a more psychological perspective…but you’d made some good points, about how we’d longed for that connection with others, but, finding that connection outside is only partial the answers to the problem that one is experiencing with loneliness.
Thank you for your comment. I agree that it is both internal and external. Cognitive, existential, interpersonal, social, and cultural factors all play a role.
I was thinking the same thing but you stated it beautifully.
I know of an individual (no military background) who has people in his life who love and are there to support him but he is continually stuck in the past and has a way of shutting people out. He isolates himself, so no one is there to judge, then he spirals into dark bouts of depression and has attempted suicide once and has had suicidal thoughts many times, perhaps more than I am aware since I’m only a friend.
He went to rehab once, and we all saw a marked improvement in his outlook on life, then he gradually reverted to his old way of thinking, as we assume he is not using the tools he’s been given by the therapist. It is sad to watch, since we all want the best for him, but all our well wishes will not solve the inherent problem — he has to want to change, he has to want more for his life, he has to be accountable. So even if he is not alone, the path he is choosing can be a very lonely one — ultimately, only he knows how he really feels. Was he pretending to be better just out of rehab? At this point we don’t know for sure…
i think the person is suffering from his PTSD from serving his term in the army, and, group therapy, being around those who shared similiar experiences as he, might be helpful ofr the person, hope it all works out:)
He was never in the service!
Reblogged this on Mirroring the World and commented:
Trying to Find the Cures for Loneliness by Establishing the Connections with the External Environments
Reblogged this on husbandstolovetheirwivesinthelord and commented:
Stay connected !
Your work is really valuable, it is wonderful that you address these male taboo subjects, and it is so brave of these returned vets to voice their difficulties in such thoughtful ways, searching for answers. When it is brought into the open there is so much hope for healing, or at least of management, and this is a BIG issue that needs looking at more openly. This deep male loneliness is one of the themes that really resonated with my husband in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit when we both read it quite early in our marriage. It led to very revealing discussion between us, and also helped me understand a lot about my own achievement-oriented father’s difficulty adapting when he was forced into early retirement (hero to zero, politics, gotta love it). When discussing it with my siblings (who suffered a lot more than I did from the perceived lack of positive attention from him) their realisation of his unvoiced regrets about fractured relationships led to a lot of bridge-building and forgiveness that has made everyone – not least my wonderful wise and loyal mother – happier over time.
Wow! Thank you for sharing this. I am happy to hear he was able to make such a change and rebuild bridges. Men’s issues are for sure an interesting area that does not get a lot of mainstream attention. Although men are not victims, their privilege and position can produce unique problems. I have not seen “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” but I am interested in watching it now!
Appreciate your posts very much. Mat Tombers
A National Geographic photographer, commenting on his experience doing a piece on the North American tundra, described meeting a Native American, living in isolation out in the middle of nowhere. The native, when asked about the civilized people that came to visit the region, said that they were lonely.
The lesson to me was that loneliness wasn’t about having people around you. It’s about forcing yourself upon the world – in effect, demanding that it be you – rather than allowing it to enter into you. The military is an organization in which that “forcing upon” that men prefer is validated and shared. I think that for 74 cents on the dollar, women may be getting the far better deal, because I think that most of them receive the world around them at the same time.
Thanks for following my blog – Our PhD research projects share some similarities… keep in touch 🙂
In the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, Cacioppo and Patrick point to longer, healthier and happier lives for people who have solid relationships with others. They refer to humans as “obligatorily gregarious.” It’s in our genetic heritage to be social. Given this, the solitary warrior/hunter/entrepreneur male role model does not seem very healthy. Yet, that is the pervasive model in the United States. We have not yet adopted the Ayn Rand ideal for men, but we still put a lot of pressure on men to go it alone.
Thank you for this comment and for sharing the insights from that book. I will have to check it out.
Men are not victims. I cannot parse that sentence and take issue with it but it still makes me uncomfortable. Your academic background makes you more qualified than I would be to speak to the distribution of misery, real hard core misery, between genders.
And privilege….similarly the distribution I refer to above would blur the line between privilege and victim.
This is more than saying “men can be victims too”. Surely I’d not be that pedestrian.
I suppose asking what is meant by privilege is in order. Your foray into the lonely-at-the-top dynamic and lack of social connectedness (even if self created) speaks directly to the blurred line in that the Draft Horse effect of expectations combined with the sort of taken for granted-ness of fulfilling same all call into question this privilege.
For those who would cry injustice regarding the privilege of men it is not off kilter to retort, “Be careful what you wish for”
I like your blog. I’ll have a better look in the coming days.
Thank you for your comment! I guess one can say that men are victims to their own privilege, in a sense. I highly recommend Thomas Joiner’s book, “Lonely at the Top,” for a full investigation into this phenomenon.
As a medically retired Colonel, I have experienced isolation and loneliness both in the military and when I was retired because of epilepsy. I’m not sure this just affects men. 15% of military forces are now women. They have similar issues but perhaps more isolation at the top since they aren’t always part of the good ole boys network. Having a medical problem that takes away your control over consciousness and limits driving doesn’t help isolation.