It’s been said that “no man is an island,” and for good reason. As a Registered Psychologist living and working in the beautiful mountain town of Nelson, B.C. on unceded Ktunaxa and Sinixt lands, I know how important it is to have people in our lives who care about us and support us.
These vital connections include partners, family members, co-workers, neighbours, health professionals, and last but not least, the subject of this blog post: other guys.
The importance of connectedness and social support
Our connections with others help us cope with setbacks, solve problems, feel more confident, and even manage health problems and stress.
As important as social support is, men often struggle to form the relationships we need to benefit from them. According to a 2019 survey, 63 percent of 18 to 34-year-old Canadian men experienced “considerable” loneliness, compared to 53 percent of similarly aged women.
Men said they often wish they had more good friends, and feel too busy to spend quality time with family and friends.
Why men’s groups are good for your mental health
When guys get together socially in intentional ways, good things happen. A men’s group meets regularly to share what’s happening in everyone’s lives. If that sounds simple and straightforward, it’s because it IS a simple and straightforward way to build deeper relationships. It isn’t about therapy, but about creating connections.
Men’s groups can be a place to talk about things that members are not fully comfortable discussing with others. For example, they might feel that they want to avoid burdening their partner or other family members with their challenges and uncertainties.
Tips for starting a men’s group
Men’s groups are often formed around some shared interest. In my neck of the woods, one of my groups is a men’s book club. Each of us picks a book in rotation. We’ve read adventure non-fiction such as North to the Night, novels including American War, and classic epics.
In meeting around a campfire, at a beach or in a restaurant to discuss our books, we end up connecting plot lines and themes to events in our own lives. This often leads to more personal topics that help us get things off our chests, and allow us to share advice, perspectives and insights that make the ups and downs of life easier to handle.
We build connections with each other as we talk about work stressors, the challenges and joys of parenting, upcoming family trips, past and current adventures, politics, Truth & Reconciliation, and the complexities of our dating and long-term romantic relationships
Begin with intention
Rather than gathering without a goal, kick things off by asking everyone in your group to commit to doing one thing that they wouldn’t normally do.
Popular “guy” activities, like playing hockey or watching sports, may not always work well for creating close personal connections. So try to think outside of what you usually do.
Do something you normally wouldn’t do
Gathering around shared interests also helps guys not used to talking about themselves feel more comfortable doing so while deepening your appreciation for your chosen activity.
Another intentional men’s group that I started was formed around a curiosity to learn, cooking great meals and outdoor recreation which builds on the health benefits of getting active outdoors.
We meet every other month to share a meal and an activity such as a sauna or cross country skiing. We also go on a sailing or paddling trip of 3 to 7 days every summer and making this a high priority in our busy summer calendars.
Here are some more activity suggestions:
Build something: From splitting firewood to constructing a shared shed to working on a community garden, working with your hands with others provides a common goal and many opportunities for connection. There are Men’s Shed groups all across Canada that do this.
Do something: Go-karting, bocce, pickle ball, bowling or tubing at a ski resort are the kinds of things that pretty much anyone can do, with the shared good times and a bit of friendly competition helping guys to bond.
Help someone: My brother, who helps organizations around North America reduce mental health stigma in the workplace, has also started a local men’s group focused on community service. Serving food at a shelter, helping someone with overdue home repairs or participating in a beach clean-up are just a few of many options.
Learn Something: Our men’s group here in Nelson have gotten together to watch and discuss relevant documentaries, such as The Happy Movie or a TED Talk about the creativity spawned by planned work sabbaticals.
Make it regular
Having a fixed schedule for these activities can help us prioritize them in our busy lives. We have found that once a month works well, with the option to skip a month here and there if people are too busy (the men’s groups I’m in usually skip the summer months and December). Having someone in your group who is good at organizing is also a good idea to keep things going.
Keep in mind that the size of the group matters
An ideal number of guys to have in the group is 5 to 7. When the group is too big, the banter tends to be more, “How’s work going? What are you getting up to these days?” and that’s about as deep as it gets. Which is also great, don’t get me wrong. Any opportunity to connect socially is always beneficial.
But if you want to connect on a deeper level, a smaller number enhances the group dynamic. On the flip side, you don’t want the group to be too small because someone is always going to have a work commitment, is taking care of an aging parent, or taking a child to an activity. If you have 6 or 7 in your group, 4 or 5 will likely show up at any given time.
Share your goals
Making social connections may be the ultimate goal, but gathering around another objective, such as learning about investing, speaking another language, getting fitter, or being an even better parent/son/partner, adds more motivation to the mix.
The impacts of isolation on physical and mental health
A lack of connection and social support can cause mental and physical health problems such as anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension and pain, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.
In older men, loneliness has been called “the new smoking,” with research finding that the health harms from social isolation exceed those of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Worst of all, social isolation can be a factor in suicide, three times more common among Canadian men than women.
The challenge of formal support groups in rural areas
Social support can be especially hard to find in rural areas like the one I live in. For one thing, support groups can be challenging because everyone knows everyone. For another, there is a limited pool of participants.
That’s why it’s important to remember that social support doesn’t need to be through formal means like individual or group therapy with a mental health professional. Rather, it is about camaraderie and having a regular local event to look forward to.
Another fun skill-building option: Memorizing jokes that are guaranteed to make people laugh! Here’s one of my faves:
Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One, but the light bulb has to want to change.
What kind of men’s group would you like to start? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!