The Lonely American Man | Hidden Brain Boys get the message quickly: a man is supposed to be strong and independent. That message, researchers say, has widespread consequences for men's social lives and physical health.
NPR logo

Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/594719471/595066331" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men

Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/594719471/595066331" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: It's a Friday evening at an apartment in Lower Manhattan. Two friends are looking forward to unwinding after a long week. Their names are Ansel Schoal (ph) and Mateus Corona (ph), and they can teach us all something about friendship. They've been friends for half their lives.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Like, seven years. No - because if its second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade. Six years.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Six years. Sorry.

VEDANTAM: Doing the math, that means they're now 12.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: And, like, ever since second grade, we've been close friends.

VEDANTAM: By fourth grade...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: I mean, I knew that this was going to be my best friend.

VEDANTAM: ...Their best-friendship has involved doing lots of homework together, video games...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: We FaceTime. We help each other. He helps me. I help him. We give each other advice.

VEDANTAM: Sleepovers, like the one they're going to have tonight, and Legos.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: No, you have to push it - I think you have to push it. It's not going to go under.

VEDANTAM: When they're not doing homework or playing together, the two friends are supporting each other.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: So my great-grandfather died, like, a few weeks ago. He really helped me, like, sort of, like, get through that.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: I came up. I'm, like, I'm so sorry, and I hugged him. And I don't know if I did it again, but, I do remember, I do recall saying it sometimes. Not trying to be braggy or show him, like, I'm so amazing. But, yes, I remember being there for him.

VEDANTAM: Ansel and Mateus don't think their friendship will change when they get to high school.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: I'm pretty sure we'll stay best friends.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Yeah. As long as, like, neither of us move high schools, I think we will.

VEDANTAM: And why would they think differently? They have the kind of friendship that most kids, or adults for that matter, would want. But for many young men just a few years older than Ansel and Mateus, friendships like this are a distant memory.

NIOBE WAY: Some of the boys go into sort of, I don't care, it doesn't matter. But they say I don't care so many times that you sense exactly (laughter) that they do very much care.

VEDANTAM: By the time boys become men, they may not have any friends around, close or otherwise.

PAUL KUGELMAN: It was just the sense of isolation. At the end of the day, it was just me.

VEDANTAM: Many men find there's no one around them at the end of the day. And they find they have become trapped by a series of unspoken rules. If you're a man, you're supposed to be strong and independent. If you connect deeply, especially with other men, it's probably because you're gay. If you crave deep emotional bonds, well, that's just unmanly. Today on HIDDEN BRAIN, we take a closer look at misguided notions of masculinity in the United States. And we explore new research that studies the consequences - stressed-out romantic relationships, physical health problems and a growing epidemic of loneliness.

To understand what's going on today, we need to step back 80 years and tell a story that's been passed down and even mythologized. In the late 1930s, a retail store magnate named W.T. Grant had a question - can you predict who's going to become a good department store manager? To find out, he teamed up with a Harvard professor named Arlie Bock and gave him $60,000 to run a study. Dr. Arlie Bock thought that medical research focused too much on what made people sick. He wanted to know what made people healthy. To answer that question and, presumably, W.T. Grant's question about department store managers, he and his colleagues picked a group of Harvard students to track closely over time. They chose 268 students, mostly from the classes of 1942, '43 and '44. The researchers thought the study would run a decade or so. All the volunteers were men. Harvard didn't admit women at the time. All were white. Some students went on to have distinguished careers beyond department store management. One became a swashbuckling newspaper editor. Ben Bradlee not only helped The Washington Post break news, he was the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Any story about The Post must begin with Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, 52, its fast-talking, chain-smoking, cocky executive editor.

VEDANTAM: Another became president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.

VEDANTAM: Others had hard lives and struggled with mental illness or alcoholism. As part of the study, these men were put through all kinds of tests. Researchers measured everything from the size of their moles to the lactic acid their bodies released after five minutes on a treadmill. The men were asked to interpret Rorschach ink blots. Their handwriting was analyzed. Examiners took detailed measurements of their skulls. At the time, researchers thought the size and shape of a head could tell you a great deal about a person's character and abilities.

ROBERT WALDINGER: So we now have a whole set of elaborate skull measurements that we have no idea what to do with.

VEDANTAM: This is Robert Waldinger. He's the current director of the project. It's now called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It's lasted far longer than Arlie Bock and W.T. Grant imagined. It's now been running for eight decades. The length of the study isn't the only thing that's unusual. Its aims were hazy. Sure, it was supposed to look broadly at who does well. But research studies are often designed to test one or two specific questions. The aims of this study were nebulous, and they changed repeatedly over the years.

WALDINGER: Sometimes we've been called the biggest fishing expedition in the history of research.

VEDANTAM: As the years went by, the study's agenda changed as new funders swept in and science evolved.

WALDINGER: The links between mind and body became more of a concern in the 1980s and '90s.

VEDANTAM: One thing the study paid attention to from the very start was the volunteers' social and emotional lives.

WALDINGER: Arlie Bock Bach was prescient in that way. He had a psychiatrist on his team, and there were extensive interviews about the young men's emotional lives. Also, some personality assessments and some assessments of their emotional reactivity. So all the way along, emotional well-being and personality characteristics were a subject of interest.

VEDANTAM: From the study's earliest days, all the men were asked a deceptively simple question.

WALDINGER: Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?

VEDANTAM: Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid? It turned out that men who had someone to turn to were happier with their lives and their marriages. There were also connections between the men's answers to that question and their physical health.

WALDINGER: Very strong connections. That was one of the surprising things that began to emerge in our data in the '80s. We found that people who had warmer, closer connections lived longer, developed the diseases of middle age, those chronic diseases, less soon and had better health longer on average than people who didn't have warm, close relationships.

VEDANTAM: Warm, close relationships. Now, it's easy to see why social ties might be important to happiness. But heart disease? Robert was skeptical.

WALDINGER: At first, we didn't believe our data.

VEDANTAM: Then he discovered other studies were finding the same thing. This relationship between physical health and social connections isn't obvious to most of us. When we think about how to keep ourselves healthy, we might think about eating right and getting exercise. We don't ask whether we've set aside enough time for friendships.

WALDINGER: And yet, you could notice it in moment-to-moment interactions during the day. Think about how coming into work and seeing people you like being with is energizing. Think about the experience of being upset about something and talking to a friend or a family member who listens well, and you can feel your body literally calm down. And so I think that if we actually take the time to notice at a microscopic level, you can notice how relationships can be both energizing in a positive way and calming when we're stressed.

VEDANTAM: The study also found that bad relationships can magnify physical pain, and that close relationships buffer us from the physical problems we face as we age. The researchers found that the happiest people in retirement are those who actively work to replace colleagues with friends. Today, the study focuses on this question.

WALDINGER: How is it that the quality of your relationships with your co-workers, with your friends, your family, could get into your body?

VEDANTAM: By today's standards, the demographics of the study were wildly imbalanced. As I said, the volunteers were all white, all men. Not just that, most students came from well-to-do families. The research became a little more representative in the 1970s when the study of Harvard men was paired with a separate study happening in Boston. That research focused on boys from some of the poorest, toughest areas of the city. Together, these studies provide a vivid picture of men's health over the course of their lives. Now, you could say this research is obviously incomplete because it leaves out more than half the population. But it does tell a striking story about a phenomenon that has many researchers worried, social isolation among men.

KUGELMAN: I really don't think I dealt with it. I think I viewed it as sort of a circumstance rather than a problem. But there was also a part of me that realized I was alone.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, we'll look at the profound loneliness of American men. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In recent decades, there have been pervasive worries that Americans are spending less time with one another and that the ties that once bound communities together have started to fray. Back in 2000, the political scientist Robert Putnam wrote about this idea in his book, "Bowling Alone." He described how many Americans were opting out of the civic and community organizations that their parents once joined. More recently, researchers have watched with growing concern as many of us spend increasing amounts of time hunched over our phones while ignoring those sitting across from us. There's another form of social isolation that's less talked about. One that disproportionately affects men - men like Paul Kugelman. When Paul was a kid growing up in Union City, N.J, his parents had a simple rule.

KUGELMAN: Go outside and play, and come home when the streetlights come on.

VEDANTAM: Each weekday, Paul walked to and from school with other kids in his neighborhood.

KUGELMAN: Dawn (ph), and George (ph), and Joanne (ph) and Henry (ph), John (ph).

VEDANTAM: When the kids got home, they dropped off their books and ran outside to play.

KUGELMAN: We'd do whatever. It was tag, ringolevio, capture the flag, football, whatever. It was just - it was friendship. You had people you could talk to. You were part of a community of your peers. It was nice.

VEDANTAM: It was all so easy. Paul played pickup football in the vacant lot across the street from his home. He ran into his Aunt Marie (ph) at the library.

KUGELMAN: You'd just run into people all the time, and you kind of knew everybody in the neighborhood.

VEDANTAM: Then when Paul was 9, he and his family moved 500 miles south to Martinsville, Va. Rural Virginia didn't have all the amenities he was used to in New Jersey, like the black and white cookies and coffee cake he used to get at an iconic bakery.

KUGELMAN: Not only was there no such thing as Entenmann's, it was like, what do you mean by bagel?

VEDANTAM: Paul missed his comfort foods, but that wasn't the only thing that gave him culture shock.

KUGELMAN: It was my first few days in school, and the teacher had a thick Southern accent. And she was giving a spelling test. What I heard was alpo (ph), but she said apple, but I heard alpo, so I wrote alpo. And these people concluded that I was a screaming idiot because I didn't understand how to spell apple, and I was supposed to be this great student. So - and it kind of went downhill from there for a while.

VEDANTAM: Paul's father was frequently relocated for work - after Virginia, to Delaware, then South Carolina. Each time the family moved, Paul had to navigate a new school and a new social world. Even though he didn't realize it at the time, he was gradually developing a strategy to cope with all the moves.

KUGELMAN: I didn't really interact a whole lot with folks because it just was like, we're going to move again, so I didn't want the pain, I guess.

VEDANTAM: Paul eventually went off to study at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. When he arrived, he was told that his classmates would become lifelong friends. But after they graduated, Paul found his former classmates were not very eager to stay in touch. Paul's life took its own trajectory. He got married, had a child. He got divorced. In his 30s, Paul went to law school and remarried. Just like before, he made acquaintances, but...

KUGELMAN: I was in this place where, in my mind, everything was kind of transient.

VEDANTAM: He didn't quite realize it, but his social world was shrinking. The acquaintances he made stayed acquaintances. He didn't have the time to develop these into real friendships. Family and work felt all-consuming. In his mid-40s, Paul's second marriage fell apart. His ex-wife took the kids and moved several hours away. His mother had died young, and Paul was estranged from his father. He talked to his daughter every day, but that routine ended, too. Even though he was doing meaningful work as a lawyer, it wasn't enough.

KUGELMAN: I guess lonely's the right word. It was a very lonely time. I don't remember specific triggers. It was just the sense of absolute isolation. Absolute's too strong a word because I did go to work, and I did have interactions at work, and I cherished those. But, you know, at the end of the day, it was just me.

VEDANTAM: He drank heavily for a while. Then he got into exercise. He eventually completed an Ironman triathlon. But these distractions couldn't quite stamp out the fact that he was desperate for friendship, for connection, so desperate that he turned to an inanimate object for comfort.

KUGELMAN: I was in my apartment. And one of the fixtures in the apartment was a post that runs floor to ceiling and a banister runs out of that. And the post became my friend. I would hug the post. I would hug the post for all it was worth because I was getting some kind of feedback physically. It was at that point I realized I have got to do something because when you get to the place where you need to hug a post to feel something that you need, that's - if that's not a wake-up call, nothing is.

VEDANTAM: Paul's childhood offered a model of a close-knit community. His life in his 40s was nothing like that model. Looking back, Paul says he ignored the warning signs that his social world was shrinking.

KUGELMAN: I really don't think I dealt with it, candidly. I think I viewed it as sort of a circumstance rather than a problem. It was kind of like gravity. But there was also a part of me that realized I was alone.

VEDANTAM: Even when Paul got the courage to reach out to other people, he found himself butting up against social rules. He went to introduce himself to neighbors in his apartment building but found them more bewildered than friendly.

KUGELMAN: It's not like anything they said in particular. It's kind of the looks, the countenance. Like, you're an odd dude.

VEDANTAM: Why is a 51-year-old guy knocking on our door to tell us he lives next door?

KUGELMAN: Right. Part of it is I think there's a stigma to being viewed as being alone or lonely.

VEDANTAM: The irony was Paul himself wasn't very forgiving to people who were in the same boat that he was.

KUGELMAN: It's funny. Like, when I got out into the dating realm again, you know, I'm this middle-aged, alone person, but I'm very wary of people who are in the same group as I am because, you know, what are you doing at this age alone?

VEDANTAM: Over and over, Paul was reminded that it was hard for a middle-aged man to form meaningful new friendships. After he started dating, he noticed how his girlfriend Kim (ph) easily struck up conversations and made new connections.

KUGELMAN: She can make friends anywhere she goes. And nobody bats an eye about a woman going up and just chatting either a guy or a girl up.

VEDANTAM: It wasn't just Kim. It felt like there was a difference between men and women. At one point, they were at a festival. Seemingly out of nowhere, Kim's friend Polly (ph) gathered together seven or eight people to hang out.

KUGELMAN: And I had this feeling if I tried to do that, it would be like, OK, who's the creepy old dude, you know? But I don't - yeah, I think there is a stigma for guys. And I don't know if it's just a, you know, self-imposed thing or actually society views it that way. From my experience, I think society views it that way, but I can't say for sure.

VEDANTAM: He now recognizes that even though it's hard, reaching out to other people is essential.

KUGELMAN: A rejection of the extension of an offer of friendship or acquaintancehood (ph) isn't a rejection. It's just that that person's not ready.

VEDANTAM: Paul's story is echoed by many other men who reached out to us in recent months. Although each story is different in the details, the same themes run through many of them. These men felt they didn't have enough friends. Even when they wanted to make new friends, they didn't know how to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I really looked back on the last 15 or 20 years of my life, and I just see such a dearth of close friendships and just don't have the kinds of friendships that I once did.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I am married. And when my wife and I are together, there are things to do and not enough time in the day to do them with our friends. When she and I are apart for more than a day or two, I turn into a hermit.

VEDANTAM: Many married men reported that their wives organized their social activities. In a recent episode of HIDDEN BRAIN, psychologist Eli Finkel explained how such overreliance on one person is a new phenomenon. There was a time not long ago in the United States where people didn't expect their spouse to be partner and lover and best friend combined.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELI FINKEL: Marriage, for a long time, served a set and relatively limited array of different functions for us. And over time, we've piled more and more of these emotional and psychological functions. So instead of turning to our close friends and other relatives for nights out on the town, for deep, intimate disclosure, to a larger and larger extent, our spouse has replaced a lot of what we used to look to our broader social network to help us do.

VEDANTAM: If many men in heterosexual relationships count on wives to be their sole providers of social connection, this places enormous pressure on women in those relationships, too. To be sure, there are exceptions to all of this. But overall, researchers are worried about increasing social isolation among men and where this might lead. Some men cope not by running an Ironman or drinking or hugging an inanimate object. They take more drastic measures. I spoke to Julie Phillips about this. She's a sociology professor at Rutgers University.

Which figure are you looking at here?

JULIE PHILLIPS: Say figures - Figure 2.

VEDANTAM: She walked me through a couple of graphs that show the rate of suicide among men of different age groups. The good news - over the last 70 years, the overall suicide rates have generally gone down. But those suicide rates vary widely from the young to the very old. For men, suicide rates drop off from early adulthood through middle age, then they go up for men in their 60s and 70s.

PHILLIPS: Suicide rates for the elderly have always been, by far, the highest, much higher than those among the middle-aged and the young.

VEDANTAM: But this pattern has been changing. Increasingly, middle-aged men appear to be at risk.

PHILLIPS: We saw a fairly sharp increase in suicide rates among men beginning in 1999. So for example, among men aged 50-54, we saw an increase of almost 50 percent in their suicide rate.

VEDANTAM: Again, suicide rates overall have gone down. But the increase among middle-aged men is troubling. It's also a reversal of historical patterns. Compared to earlier generations, the uptick in suicide seems to be starting earlier and earlier, especially for men. One common interpretation of this trend is that it's driven by economic problems. Julie thinks it's more complicated. The trend of rising suicide rates among middle-aged men began in the late '90s, well before the Great Recession that started in 2007.

PHILLIPS: Actually, from 1999-2005, the increases among the middle-aged were really confined to those boomers who did not have a college education. But since 2005, it is now sort of broadened out. It's really been across the board. We don't see these differences by education.

VEDANTAM: Julie has other ideas about what might be driving these changes. People have fewer social supports. They're more likely to live far away from family. Many are opting out of marriage. Many are getting divorced. Even when we choose to connect with others, we're often not doing it in person.

PHILLIPS: I also wonder, too, just about the ways in which we interact and how that has changed, certainly over the past 15, 20 years or so - I mean, the rise of social media, less face-to-face contact. You know, our entertainment has sort of become more private. You know, we watch a movie at home rather than going to a theater, for example. So, you know, that may also be having - maybe contributing to feelings of isolation - social isolation that could also be producing some of these rising rates.

VEDANTAM: Again, the toll of social isolation isn't just emotional. An analysis of nearly 150 studies has found that people with strong social relationships had about a 50 percent lower mortality risk than those with weaker ties. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her co-authors concluded that those with weaker social relationships had a greater risk of death than people who were physically inactive or obese. Let me put that another way. Spending time building and nurturing your friendships might be just as important to your health as eating right and exercising. When we come back, we look at the cultural roots of this problem.

WAY: These are, you know, human beings with unbelievable emotional and social capacity. And we as a culture just completely try to zip it out of them, and we ignore it.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We're exploring the effects of social isolation over the course of our lives. In particular, we're looking at men who tend to have a harder time than women when it comes to making and maintaining friendships. Economic forces certainly play a role in eroding social ties, but psychologist Niobe Way thinks that the roots of loneliness among men go deeper. She thinks they are primarily cultural, embedded in twisted ideas of what it takes to be a man. In the late 1980s, Niobe worked as a counselor at a high school in Boston. She expected the boys in her school to talk about their classes, difficulties with family, violence in the neighborhood.

WAY: What they were mostly talking about is their friendships and trying to find good friendships and feeling hurt by other boys in the school.

VEDANTAM: At first, she was surprised.

WAY: When I started to hear boys, it was at first wondering why they weren't sounding like the boys I thought they were going to sound like. And so essentially, it was why didn't they sound like the stereotypes that I had of them, whether it was boys or as working-class boys or as boys of color, et cetera? I was thinking they were talking a lot about, you know, friendships. They sounded like, quote, unquote, in my head in the late '80s, like "girls."

VEDANTAM: She wanted to know what was wrong with the boys, not what was wrong with the stereotype.

WAY: That's how stereotypes work. We know that they're not true for ourselves, but we somehow think they're true for other people.

VEDANTAM: As Niobe studied the issue, she discovered that men in other cultures and American men in other times had no problem developing close, intimate friendships well into adulthood. And the men she knew, at least at one point in their lives, had no problem being deeply and openly emotional.

WAY: I actually had very, very clear memories of my brothers having similar kinds of friendships.

VEDANTAM: Niobe remembers a time when she was sitting upstairs in her parents' house, and she could hear her younger brother and his friends outside.

WAY: He was out in the backyard talking with his basketball teammates. One of the guys had said something mean to one of the other guys in the group, and the four of them were processing their feelings around this mean behavior by one of the boys towards the other boys. And this - these were four tough-looking basketball players - athletic, cool kids in the high school. And they were all sitting there for about an hour, processing these feelings with each other.

VEDANTAM: Then she remembered how her other brother had a falling-out with his best friend when he was a preteen.

WAY: I remember the enormous sadness of my brother around that sort of immediate, sort of dramatic departure of a friendship.

VEDANTAM: All this started to change how Niobe listened.

WAY: I realized it was all around me, that lots of boys - my brothers, my friends, my - all sorts of boys and young men were talking about this desire or having these close friendships or desiring it.

VEDANTAM: Niobe took these observations with her as she went on to get a Ph.D. She eventually became a developmental psychologist at NYU. She's interviewed hundreds of boys since then, often circling back to the same kids year after year. The overwhelming majority have told her things like this, which she heard from a 15-year-old named Justin. We had teenage actors read the quotes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Justin) My best friend and I love each other. That's it. You have this thing that is so deep, it's within you. You can't explain it. It's just a thing that, you know, that that person is that person, and that's all that should be important in our friendship. I guess in life sometimes, two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other. It just happens. It's, like, human nature.

VEDANTAM: She heard this about the importance of close friends from a 16-year-old.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As George) I mean, if you just have your mother and your parents to talk to, then you're just going to have all these ideas bottled up, and you're just going to go wacko because you can't express yourself.

VEDANTAM: But as the boys got older, something happened. It became harder for them to express tenderness and vulnerability. Boys who had talked about how they loved their best friend or would go wacko without them began to sound more like our stereotype of teenage boys, the ones who didn't want to have anything to do with touchy-feely stuff.

WAY: Some of the boys go into sort of, I don't care, it doesn't matter, you know, whatever. But they say I don't care so many times that you sense exactly that they do very much care.

VEDANTAM: Some of the older boys did talk to Niobe about the sadness they felt at disappearing friendships. A high school senior described how his friendships have changed since freshman year.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As unidentified boy) My friendship with my best friend is fading, but I'm saying it's still there. So, I mean, it's still there because we still do stuff together, but only once in a while. It's sad because he lives only one block away from me, and I get to do stuff with him less than I get to do stuff with people who are way further. So I'm like - it's like a DJ used his cross-fader and started fading it slowly and slowly, and now I'm, like, halfway through the cross-fade.

WAY: This is the language of boys. I mean, this is just, you know, remarkably beautiful language about talking about how they're feeling and what's happening in the relational world around them. So the idea is that boys aren't just being emotional, they're actually reading the world in a beautiful, you know, articulate way, which is exactly how they're stereotyped not to be able to do.

VEDANTAM: The stereotype that boys are less emotional than girls doesn't hold up when Niobe interviews boys.

WAY: These are human beings with unbelievable emotional and social capacity. And we as a culture just completely try to zip it out of them, and we ignore it.

VEDANTAM: Niobe has an explanation for why boys have trouble maintaining close bonds with one another.

WAY: The reason for that struggle really is quite simple, which is that it's American masculinity and masculine norms and masculine expectations that make, you know, close friendships into a girly, gay thing rather than simply a human thing. So as boys grow older and enter manhood, they begin to be overwhelmed with this expectation that somehow they have to be, you know, on their own, they can't depend on others, they have to be fully independent, that somehow the desire for intimacy with other boys is problematic in a culture that's very hypermasculine.

VEDANTAM: This hypermasculinity - boys pick it up quickly and unconsciously. There's one comment that Niobe can't forget.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Carlos) You know, it might be nice to be a girl because I wouldn't have to be so emotionless.

WAY: That one quote just captured so many of the boys I've spoken with.

VEDANTAM: Even parents buy into the idea that there's something to be concerned about if their teenage boys appear sensitive and vulnerable.

WAY: I think parents sometimes even get anxious when their boys sound like this. So even when, you know, you hear parents talking about their kids being very sensitive, it's oftentimes - with their sons, there's oftentimes an embarrassment about it. And parents certainly aren't, you know, judging their sons in the same ways, but parents are part of the culture just like everybody else.

VEDANTAM: Niobe has had parents come to her and say...

WAY: You know, I think my son is gay. And I'll say, oh, OK, so, you know, what makes you think that? And they'll say, well, you know, he's very sensitive. And, you know, that, to me, is as depressing as the comment about it might be nice to be a girl because then, you know, he wouldn't have to be emotionless because the idea is that, first of all, of course, being gay is as joyous, as wonderful as being straight. But, you know, the fact that they're equating sexuality with being sensitive - I mean, it has nothing to do with sexuality.

VEDANTAM: Niobe doesn't ask the boys she interviews about their sexual orientation. Some of them might indeed be gay, but she thinks that boys of all sexual orientations find themselves in straitjackets that tell them that there's something wrong if they appear excessively emotional. To put this another way, the problem of hypermasculinity doesn't just affect straight boys who are worried about appearing gay. The model of the tough guy who doesn't need others, who can move through the world without being bruised by it - this model affects all boys. When boys lose their close friendships, there's more at stake than sleepovers and having someone to sit next to on the way to school. Niobe thinks there are consequences for mental health.

WAY: I just don't think it's just coincidental that at the very time you hear their language - the love in their language, the emotional attunement in their language diminish, and the anger, the frustration, the I-don't-care voice comes into their stories is the exact same time that the suicide rate increases.

VEDANTAM: There is no hard evidence that the decline of friendships among adolescent boys is responsible for suicide, but Niobe is worried by a correlation. As boys' friendships start to weaken, their diary entries start to reveal mental health problems. Niobe's concern led her to team up with another professor and a middle school teacher. The idea was to help boys connect more deeply with people they cared about. How? Asking them to conduct in-depth interviews with their loved ones. They started the program at an all-boys school and have since expanded it to other schools. At the top of the show, we heard from two 12-year-olds at one school. My producer, Rhaina Cohen, talked to their classmates.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: So as you get older, it kind of seems like the girls drift closer to the girls, and the boys drift closer to the boys because you're going through something that's very similar as the other boys in your grade, and the girls are going through something very similar as the girls in their grade. So you kind of group up with someone you have someone in common with.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: So friendships as we get older and we hit puberty - friendships, especially with the other - opposite gender, they can get altered in a way. They can become more intimate or romantic. To me, it's kind of scary because I'm not really ready for that yet.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #5: In some cases, like, boys can just be friends with boys and not talk about, like, emotional things. But if you're closer friends with that boy, then I think you feel more comfortable talking about, like, what's going on, like, emotionally with you than you would be with one of your not-as-close friends.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: So I think it's not true that boys don't talk to their friends about personal things. It's actually easier to talk about personal things with your friends than your parents because they fully or mostly understand what you're going through because they're probably going through something similar like that, too.

VEDANTAM: But you wouldn't know that based on the way that boys are portrayed in TV shows and movies.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #5: There's more of a depth to a real relationship between friends in my age.

VEDANTAM: The boys themselves have theories about what's going on.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #6: I mean, I think boys can be emotional if they want to, but I don't think they do. I don't - I think they've just been influenced by the past of the society before, that boys don't share emotions. And I think that's just because they've been influenced.

VEDANTAM: Already, some of these kids can see what's ahead. The only acceptable place to express emotion is in the context of a romantic relationship. And you're supposed to allow those relationships to suck up all the oxygen you once gave to your friendships.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #7: When you get a girlfriend, like, you have to spend a lot of time with her. Or if you get a boyfriend, you have to spend a lot of time with him. So, like, you kind of spend more time with them than you do with your best friends. And then they might get jealous and react.

VEDANTAM: Of course, this is exactly the kind of thinking that, in 30 or 40 years, leaves middle-aged men bereft of social connection when their marriages fall apart or a spouse dies. Rhaina asked two boys about their friendship.

RHAINA COHEN, BYLINE: Do you ever say anything like, I love you, or you're important to me or - you're looking at me dumbfounded.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #8: I mean, I don't say I love you in, well, a gay way. I - maybe I say, aw, man, I love you, bro, like a - you're my dude. You're important to me - but no romance. Bromance, I think, yes.

COHEN: What about you?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #5: Yeah. He knows that he's very important to me. So we don't, like - well, I mean, not really - or, like, some...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: Sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #5: Sometimes.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #8: Sometimes we say, you're my man, and like, I got you, and like, I love you, bro. Like, we hug, but we don't go on full-on holding hands.

VEDANTAM: The boys we heard from in New York are already learning the lesson that there are certain kinds of friendship between men that society deems acceptable. One is the bromance. Men can say, I love you. They can hug each other. But the bromance plot, at least, as Hollywood shows it, involves supercharged testosterone, not intimacy. If there's any flash of tenderness, it comes after 90 minutes of high jinks, binge drinking and sexual conquest, like in the movie "Superbad." After a wild party, two teenage friends open up to each other. They're exhausted and curled up in sleeping bags.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUPERBAD")

MICHAEL CERA: (As Evan) Like, I owe you so - you carried me. I love you. I love you, man.

JONAH HILL: (As Seth) I love you. I love you. I'm not even embarrassed to say it. I just - I love you.

CERA: (As Evan) I'm not embarrassed.

HILL: (As Seth) I love you.

CERA: (As Evan) I love you.

VEDANTAM: Bromances are not evidence that men have transcended homophobia. They're a way for men to dabble in emotional connection while telegraphing to the world that they're absolutely not - not even a little bit - gay. Niobe says some big changes need to happen for emotional 12-year-old boys to grow into emotional 42-year-olds.

WAY: How do we as a culture change the culture to normalize, to humanize this fundamental human need and capacity of reading the human world, and engaging with it and having quality relationships? We can change it because we already know that through gay marriage - we now accept gay marriage as a culture - we can change anything we want to change.

VEDANTAM: Men's fear of appearing gay or feminine isn't the only reason many of us end up lonely. Both men and women are plagued by a bias that pushes us towards isolation rather than connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN DOOR CHIME)

VEDANTAM: Nick Epley regularly rides the Chicago metro system. He was on the train one day when he noticed something puzzling.

NICK EPLEY: We happen to be one of the most social species on the planet who seems to get a lot of happiness and satisfaction from our connections with others. And yet every morning on the train, and over and over again in public spaces where I'd be out and about, I would see people standing cheek to jowl next to each other or sitting cheek to jowl next to each other and ignoring each other.

VEDANTAM: Nick is a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago. He started thinking about an explanation for this odd behavior. Why do we ignore one another?

EPLEY: One possibility is that strangers, in fact, are unpleasant. We don't know them. And striking up a conversation would be less pleasant than sitting there in solitude, so people are maximizing their well-being by sitting on the train, or maybe in a cab, or on a bus or in a waiting room and ignoring each other. That's possible. The other possibility is that we actually underestimate the benefits that come from social engagement, that we think we'd be happier sitting in solitude. And, in fact, we're just wrong about that.

VEDANTAM: Nick and his co-author, Juliana Schroeder, decided to figure out what was going on. They ran an experiment that involved commuters. Volunteers were assigned to one of three conditions - engage with the people around them, sit in solitude or act as they normally would on their commute. People predicted that they would be the least happy if they had to engage with other people on the train. They were sure that what would make them happy was to be simply left alone, but that's not what the study found.

EPLEY: People reported being happier, less sad and having a more pleasant commute when they connected with the person sitting next to them than when we randomly assigned them to a condition where they were asked to sit in solitude.

VEDANTAM: People's perception that their fellow commuters wanted to be left alone didn't match reality. What was happening was that volunteers thought that others were less interested in talking to them than they actually were. In one study, volunteers were asked...

EPLEY: What percentage of people on the train would be interested in talking to you or would be willing to talk to you if you tried? They estimated fewer than 50 percent of people would. As far as we can tell, the actual percentage of people who would be willing to talk to you is much closer to 100 percent.

VEDANTAM: This distorted belief keeps us and the strangers around us from connecting with one another, opening a conversation, making small talk.

EPLEY: Hey, I like those pants. Those are good-looking shoes. What do you think of the weather today? How long have you been riding this train?

VEDANTAM: Nick says there are two steps to having a pleasant conversation - getting it started and keeping it going.

EPLEY: And what we find in our data is that the barrier seems to be in the first of those things. It's not that people anticipate that having a conversation, once it gets going, will be unpleasant. They think that'll be OK. Instead, the barrier seems to come earlier. There's anxiety about actually starting the conversation, engaging in the conversation. And that's what seems to lead people to predict that it's going to be unpleasant.

VEDANTAM: Nick has an analogy. It's like climbing up a steep hill.

EPLEY: You've got to (grunting) get over that initial speed bump at the top. And then after that, it seems to go pretty smoothly. But if you don't get over that first initial bump, you'll never get started.

VEDANTAM: Both you and your fellow commuter may be willing, even eager, to make a new friend. But no one wants to be the first to admit it, unless, like we do here at HIDDEN BRAIN, you give people a phone number where they can leave a message confessing their deepest feelings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Loneliness and social isolation has become more and more part of my daily life. It's harder to make friends. It's harder to find situations that I enjoy being in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I have two or three friends that I have known since we were all teenagers. And other than that, if my wife weren't around, I would be hard-pressed to have close friends other than those from a long time ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We have perhaps more of a reason to turn to people and to lean on those friendships and those relationships to give us strength, but they're often not there in the way that they are for women or they were, you know, when we were hanging out with our friends in our 20s.

VEDANTAM: Think how much better life could be if we could just admit these things to someone we care about, not just to a voicemail inbox, if we could be OK with being vulnerable, with being dependent on someone who's not a spouse, if we didn't look suspiciously at older men who are friendly or shame boys who talk about their love for their friends, if we expected friendships to endure, even as our lives change, so they don't have to fade to silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Tara Boyle. Our stuff includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah and Matthew Schwartz. We had original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Amiel and Finn Beaubien (ph), who read the quotes you heard in the show. Our unsung hero this week is Gina Voskov. She's a teacher at the United Nations International School in New York. She helped us arrange interviews with a group of seventh and eighth grade boys. She kindly managed a long string of emails as she coordinated between our producer, students and their parents. Thank you, Gina.

If you liked the show, here's one important thing you can do for us and one important thing you can do for yourself. Tell one friend about our show and strike up a conversation with one stranger this week. If you can't think of anything else to say, ask them, hey, do you listen to HIDDEN BRAIN? Tell us what happens next on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Before we go, we're working on another episode about relationships. We're looking at the effects of diversity on creativity. Working with people who are different than you can have both upsides and downsides. If you've had a special collaboration with someone very different, especially someone who grew up in a different country, we want to hear from you. We want to hear the story of your relationship, moments of great friction, moments of transcendent partnership. Record a voice memo and email it to us at hiddenbrain@npr.org or leave us a message at 771-662-7246. That's 771-66-BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.