For Longevity, Men Need to Cultivate Deep Friendships

Friday, May 19, 2017 - 5:00 am

For Longevity, Men Need to Cultivate Deep Friendships

One of my most distinct memories from growing up is sitting at the top of the stairs in my jammies, studying the sounds of women talking in a group. I could almost compose it for you now, like a symphony — first the one voice, saying something I couldn’t quite hear, then the explosion of a chorus of laughter that would slowly die down and then more indecipherable singular voices, and on and on like that for hours.

My mom had book groups and dream groups and journaling groups and film festival committee meetings and they all involved a small army of women showing up at our home after bedtime, ceramic bowls filled with homemade dips and wine bottles and ear-marked books tucked under their arms. It was a secret world in many ways. I really couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the sonic rhythms of it revealed the moral: gather women and joy sparks.

I knew, from watching my mom, that women friends had awesome, infectious chemistry with one another. My dad’s friendships, on the other hand, were completely invisible to me. I knew he had some close friends at work, but I almost never saw these suited men. I knew my mom and he went out with other couples for dinner, but it didn’t appear that my dad had any particularly passionate connection to any of the men in those couples. If anything, it appeared that the women were close and then men were sort of happy to hang out.

I was reminded of this recently while in conversation with Dr. Laura Cartensen, a psychology professor at Stanford and the author of A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity. She mentioned a statistic that I had heard before but not paid enough attention to: men are a third more likely to die shortly after losing their wives, while women have no increased chance of dying after losing their husbands.

Dr. Cartensen is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, which runs something called the “Sightlines Project” — a treasure trove of quality of life data that you can slice and dice by generation, income level, gender, etc. When it comes to sociality — having close friends, interacting with neighbors, attending a religious institution — men score lower across the board.

I’ve written about this before, but I feel the need to write about it again because I think there’s something so profound underlying these statistics. We know that a high quality of life in older age is largely determined by the quality of relationships that one enjoys. Men, on average, die five years younger than women, and researchers believe that a big part of that gap is about social isolation. In other words, men are dying, to some extent, because they undervalue friendship.

What I was hearing as a little girl, perched on that top stair, wasn’t just women having fun. It was women strengthening their bonds and, in so doing, their health, women weaving real, lifelong relationships out of strands of storytelling, self-reflection, knowledge-sharing, work, activism, tears, and laughter. Three decades later, my mom still gathers with many of these women. I now gather with my own little coven of beautiful geniuses. I live into this gift from my mother with such gratitude; it may just be one of her most profound legacies.

And yet, I worry about my father, my brother, my husband, my guy friends. How can they defy these statistics and be men who gather? How can they invest in the bonds they’ll need to live long, healthy lives? How can they build friendships that feed their myriad needs so that we, their wives (for those in a heterosexual context), aren’t heavy with the burden of it all?

I think about the pair of men who I can reliably find sitting on the bench outside of my favorite donut shop almost every single morning. They smoke, which can’t be good for their long-term health prospects, but they’re together, so perhaps the nicotine is tempered somewhat by the chuckles.

I think about the gaggle of old guys that seem to congregate at all hours outside of the Ethiopian coffee shop nearby. They’re not just shooting the shit; they’re investing in their futures.

And I think about two of the sweetest old besties I know — Parker and his best friend Tom — who can still crack one another up as if a day hasn’t passed since they were college chums. Seeing them together is as tender as it is reassuring.

There is something tragically beautiful, of course, about the fact that men can die of a broken heart. Surely it’s a sign that they’ve invested in the women they love. And yet, how much more of a tribute to their wives would it be if, instead of dying like them, they made friends like them? That’s what I would want for my man.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    With respect, I think we should consider being cautious about being matronizing about adult men. (Is it a word?) How do we feel when men proclaim frequently what they think Women should do and be differently – perhaps what a man “wants for HIS woman?” ….women should be more like this, they’d be happier, more like us… they’d be happier..
    As a woman, I am as uneasy with women proclaiming what Men should want or should do differently as I am with men asserting how Women should behave themselves differently.
    I think there is a symmetry in this.
    As a mother of sons and daughters, I raise them with the same values and childhood opportunities but as they become adults I need to let them grow into Themselves. It is what they want for themselves in terms of relationships (few or many), causes, and careers that matters.

  • Parker J. Palmer

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your reference to my friend Tom Beech and me, who have indeed been besties since 1957! So here I go, getting all verklempt again—while hoisting a Quakerly middle finger against all the societal norms that are supposed to define what it means to be male! To repeat an idea that you and I have explored in various settings, no punishment anyone might lay on us can possible be worse than the punishment we lay on ourselves by “conspiring in our own diminishment.” Love you!

  • snarkylicious

    Men aren’t the only ones that suffer from intense isolation. The problem is everyone thinks they have a “deep relationship” but very few understand what a deep relationship is.

  • Amor Fati

    Not sure one can generalize like that, lumping all men and women together. I, as a married woman, had wonderful friendships with men and women over my lifetime. I have to say, I preferred the male friendships. When women had good times together, like you describe, it was often at the expense of other women. Gossiping is more a female than a male trait, I believe.
    Also, that longevity thing is highly overrated, in my opinion. When you visit nursing homes, you find the vast majority there are women. Do they look happy? I don’t think so. I would prefer a heart attack, that saves me from years being dependent on others, any time.

  • Taosophy

    Apparently, I am the exception to this “rule”. As a 50 year old man, I have not found a group of men I have much in common with. Besides heterosexuality and love of sports–that’s it!!! Those are not things upon which meaningful relationships are built.
    Then again, I’m not your typical “guy”. In fact, if I can’t get a considerable amount of time alone, I literally can’t function properly. I have relatively normal relationships with my coworkers, but that’s about the extent to which I can extend myself.

    As a musician, I recently found myself making male friends with band mates, but these relationships eventually devolve into “hey, let’s go and do some guy stuff together” types of associations that I do not find the least bit fulfilling.

    So despite the generalizations and self-affirmations to the contrary, with which the internet is repleat, I disagree.

    Successful, happy, well-adjusted outlier and father of four, grandfather of 2.

    • Dumfries Spearhead

      You don’t sound like an outlier; just an introvert, like I am (a 50 something woman) and I feel the same way you do about group activities with either sex.

      I need plenty of alone time to function as well.

      If you’re at work all day, I’m not surprised you no longer have the energy for further socializing.

  • CrummyVerses

    At age 59, I still have imaginings of high school buddies and their approval or disapproval of me and/or a decision I’m making, even of the most trivial nature. For now, I’m “reaching out” in part by reading, attending meditation/contemplation gatherings where we’re typically quiet, and get online to interact with just a few others. I’m introverted but know I could benefit by talking more. Unsure what my next step will be because, like many, I struggle with depression which is a real turn-off for people; it’s written on my facial expressions. (sigh) Thank you for a great essay!

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  • Barry Dym

    No doubt, we need friends as we age. I have always had several close friends and many more at a slightly greater distance. I’d feel starved and lonely without them. I’m not sure, though, that men do best in groups. There are men’s groups, of course, but they are constructed and, for many men, a bit contrived. Most men I know prefer one on one relationships, one on one conversations. Activities are another thing. There teams are best; and one of the things men miss most when they leave school is teams and that great good feeling of being in something together. I’m not sure how to create that for us older creatures but it would be worth a try…. Barry Dym