As kids and regardless of gender, we did everything with our friends and never seemed to get tired of finding new and fun ways to explore the world together. We told secrets and knew when our friends were feeling down. Yet, research shows something starts to change in the teen years. It’s more pronounced in men. Ideas of friendship evolve—and not for the better. Through the teen years, Americans prioritize their friendships in a way they do not at any other point in their life. At age 18, we are spending more than two hours a day, on average, with our friends, but this drops precipitously over the ensuing decade. By the time we reach middle age, Americans devote only about 30 minutes a day to maintaining their friendships.
Outdoor Recreational Expert and Principal at Dockendorf Consulting based in Hood River, Oregon, John R. Dockendorf became interested in this trend some time ago. During his 27 years in the recreation industry, he’s seen men who have an abundance of close friends and others who are part of the 28% of males under age 30 who report not a single close friend or confidante. He dedicated his time to researching why so many feel disconnected from the power of friendship and, even more so, how we can adapt our organizations to help facilitate friendships.
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Why This is Important
Happiness is generally correlated with the depth and breadth of one’s social connections. Much more so than not, your net worth or business acumen or perceived success.
Social and professional connections are a healthy part of an individual’s identity. It not only reduces anxiety, loneliness and stress but creates a sense of belonging and accomplishment among workers, the study says.
A 2019 Harvard Business review study shows that flourishing in your career depends as much on your relationships, both in and out of work, as it does on your job, or your education.
It Starts in the Teen Years
Something happens around puberty. Many boys, unlike girls, stop putting the effort into friendships, often buying into the “act like a man box” with fears that making themselves vulnerable and relationship oriented may make them perceived as weak or gay. They feel inclined to favor their “hard side” which has been characterized as masculine and inherently “preferable,”‘ rather than their soft, relations side which may be seen as “feminine or lesser” in the adolescent boy world, where boys often lack confidence and seek validation from more macho boys, who are mimicking a macho, stoic, unemotional culture.. Boys receive messages that growing up and “manning up” means shedding that soft side — a mindset that neuroscience, social science and developmental psychology all show is harmful to them,
Men’s friendships tend to be more transactional and less emotional, while women are much more likely than men to share emotions and feelings. Men’s friendships are often based on shared activities (e.g. gaming, grabbing food or mountain biking). Men share activities, women share feelings.Sadly, this may lead to higher rates of suicide, drug abuse and loneliness in teenage boys that can carry into adulthood as young men are less likely to make themselves vulnerable to others or share feelings. Often for boys it’s “safer” to get on a computer then put themselves “out there” to be with friends. Interacting through technology lets you be anonymous and avoid rejection or any potential bullying. Straight white males seem to struggle the most compared to others. They’re not finding friends, a source of emotional support, or a place where they feel they can be their true selves.
Gender Stereotypes Continue to Hinder Close Friendship
We’ve come a long way in recognizing that “men have feelings too” and many teens today reject the old school stoic manhood stereotype. Still, old ways of thinking persist, making showing vulnerability a weakness. To make close friends, you must let your guard down, take risks and be vulnerable. Sometimes in a friendship, you have to be willing to ask for help or admit you’re wrong, two things which are hard for young men to do.Gender stereotypes make something hard, even more difficult. Sometimes, trying to strengthen a friendship means rejection and any type of public failing or embarrassment goes to many mens’ deepest fears.
Many boys look to their fathers relationships as a model and data seems to show that sons of men with many social connections tend to have more friendships themselves.
Validation of Others Is Important for Mental Health and Society
Being understood and validated by someone (hopefully outside of family) is essential for personal development and mental health. If someone feels heard and appreciated for who they are, they’ll be able to listen to others and become a better friend
Escaping the Rut
John R. Dockendorf has seen firsthand how outdoor recreation can play a vital role in helping young men develop closer friendships, and use early success to build the skills and habits to develop meaningful friendships later in life. His professional observation is supported by the science that shows outdoor activities and sports are excellent, ways for men to build these bonds. The magic of the outdoors, the shared experiences, the lack of distracting electronic devices and the physical challenge provide easy ingredients to help friendships form. Shared success against mild adversity, creates a bond that can then translate into better relationships at school and in the suburbs.
Creating More Opportunities to Connect
John has made it his life’s mission to strengthen communities by helping people connect through outdoor recreational activities. He recognizes that many have struggled to make close friends their whole lives and he has seen through summer camp and other shared outdoor experiences, young adults open themselves up to the fulfillment of close friendship in an outdoor adventure setting. He hopes that more people who feel isolated and alone will step outside their comfort zone and join various outdoor camps and clinics to see how much easier it is to make friends outdoors and experience how powerful and transforming friendships can be, especially for those struggling with loneliness or having difficulty making friends.
Inspiring Future Leaders
After a long and fulfilling career, John retired. However, he continues to inspire and mentor leaders in the outdoor industry and encourage them to think of the importance of their work, creating opportunities to connect, facilitating personal growth, and promoting active, healthy lifestyles across generations.