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Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success


It’s lonely everywhere, but Thomas Joiner believes that it is particularly Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success.  He’s certainly not alone in this belief.  It’s a common cliché that it’s lonely at the top.  But there’s more to it.  It’s lonely anywhere that people don’t believe that they can share honestly and be vulnerable.


Loneliness is a major health concern on par with alcohol and smoking.  It’s an epidemic in the world where we’ve become more involved with technology (see Alone Together) and where social capital is waning (see Bowling Alone and Our Kids).  Joiner points out that loneliness seems to disproportionally impact men who don’t build the lifelong skills for maintaining existing relationships and developing new relationships.  Connections will necessarily disappear over time if for no other reason than the death of the other party.  Men seem to be particularly bad at rebuilding those relationships.

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness – or Connection

It’s a truism that money doesn’t buy happiness.  We know that people believe it will take about 10% more income than they currently make to be happy.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow and The How of Happiness.)  Certainly, money can buy you things and experiences.  However, our perspective about those things and experiences is substantially more important than these things themselves.  (See Hardwiring Happiness.)

One of the very real challenges for the wealthy and the famous is whether people are “friends” with them because of a genuine connection or because of what they perceive they can get from the relationship.  (See Give and Take for more.)

I do like to say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it will make you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease.  Of course, at some point, that lease runs out.

Social Fabric

There is an obsession with thread count in sheets and other fabrics.  Thread count is a proxy for softness and feel.  The greater the thread count, the greater the quality of the fabric.  The same is true of our social networks.  The more people with whom we can maintain genuine connection, the greater the chance that we’ll have support in time of need.  Analyzing the Social Web explains how we can apply technology to investigate the relationships between people.  Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order explains how the shape of these relationships and the trust that they create forms different kinds of societies.  Some of those societies are better at maintaining connections than others.

Failure as a Part of Life

In The Gift of Failure, Jessica Lahey explains how we need to let our children fail – and learn how to fail well.  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explain the problems that we’ve created in The Coddling of the American Mind.  They lament that we’ve not taught children how to stand on their own.  Amy Edmondson in Right Kind of Wrong explains how failure can help us grow and learn.  This is similar to the feedback of Anders Ericson in Peak and Carol Dweck in Mindset.  We need to be challenged, to fail, and to continue trying until we ultimately succeed.

The Need for Stability (Even When It’s Negative)

The devil you know is better than the angel you’ve never met – or so it seems.  Mindreading makes the point that the purpose of consciousness is to predict.  (Also see The Righteous Mind.)  Our ability to predict varies, as Superforecasting, The Signal and the Noise, and Noise make abundantly clear.  Work Redesign approaches it from another angle with the story of Ralph, who preferred his consistent but limited life rather than reaching out and being smacked again for trying to do more than he does today.

For a myriad of reasons, we crave stability.  We want to survive, and that drive for survival has us looking for greater predictability even when that predictability is negative.  Consider the person who is subject to intimate partner violence (IPV).  They’ll stay in a bad situation because they don’t want to face the uncertainty of trying to separate.  (See Trauma and Recovery for more.)

The Power of the Potted Plant

Potted plants are powerful – and we’re not talking about the kind in Little Shop of Horrors.  They have the power to help keep people alive.  Atul Gawande explains, in Being Mortal, how having something to take care of helps people live longer even if it was simply a potted plant.  Of course, it wasn’t the plant that really mattered.  What mattered is that people believed they mattered to someone – or in this case, something – else.

Alone in a Crowd

The problem is that when you’re “at the top,” you feel separate and different than the rest of your co-inhabitants of spaceship Earth.  This difference separates you – and makes it Lonely at the Top.