Though men rarely talk about it, many say that unhappiness is a
consistent problem in their lives. Todd Patkin discusses what’s causing
this negative trend and provides strategies to overcome it.
Young boys dream of growing up to be many things: Successful. Powerful. Strong. Handsome. Respected. Heroes. They certainly don’t dream of being unhappy, unfulfilled, tired, and beaten-down drones. And yet, that’s closer to how many men actually feel. Consider the findings of a 2011 Arizona State University study that measured life satisfaction:
“Men and women have…experienced comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported health…. Men’s life satisfaction began to fall more precipitously than that for women beginning in the late 1980s.”
What goes wrong between childhood and manhood, anyway? And how can those of us who have fallen into the unhappiness trap pull ourselves out?
“While every man’s life is different, I believe that there are a few common reasons why we become unhappy and stay that way,” says Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness : One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. “In several ways, our society predisposes us to paint ourselves into a metaphorical corner across the room from happiness, where all too often we remain trapped and unfulfilled.”
Patkin isn’t just a talking head—he’s been in and fought his way out of these particular trenches.
“When I was thirty-six years old, I was successfully leading my family’s auto parts business, I was respected by my community, I had a wonderful wife and son…and I suffered a nervous breakdown,” Patkin shares. “While most men won’t experience something so extreme, they are living with many of the factors that caused my breakdown: stress, anxiety, dissatisfaction, pressure, and attacks on their self-confidence and self-esteem, to name just a few.”
Accepting these feelings as “part of life” or “the way things are” is a mistake, says Patkin. Not only is happiness life changing and worth fighting for, but consistently lacking it can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms including workaholism, substance abuse, infidelity, and more. Thankfully, none of this is inevitable.
Based on Patkin’s experiences, the opinions of real men he interviewed (you’ll see their anonymous quotes), and research, here are seven common reasons why men are so unhappy and what they can do to achieve more contentment and fulfillment:
Problem 1: Men are unsatisfied at work.
“If it was supposed to be fun, they wouldn’t call it work.” Yes, to some extent we know that this old saying is true. But at the same time, most men also feel that a decades-long devotion to a job they don’t particularly like (think stereotypical 1950s breadwinner) is unfair and outdated. In a world where we tell our kids that they can be whatever they want to be, shouldn’t the same thing apply to us? Instead, we feel pigeonholed and “stuck”—especially if the need to provide for a family keeps us from going back to school full-time or from voluntarily taking a pay cut.
What real men are saying: “I’ve been at my job for more than five-and-a-half years, so I must be good at what I do, and work at a place many would probably dream of working! However, I am not passionate about it and that sucks. I feel stuck. How do I transition into the thing I want to be now? I think many people (men and woman) are unhappy with their jobs and careers…because they really don’t know what to do to make that big change.”
What you can do: Stop wallowing and take action already! “The American Dream really isn’t a dream at all if it’s built with hours of frustration, boredom, stress, and discontentment at work,” Patkin points out. “If you know your job doesn’t utilize your strengths, don’t wallow in I-hate-what-I-do misery—take action.”
First, pinpoint the cause of your unhappiness and tackle it. This might mean asking for new responsibilities or confronting your boss about a change that needs to happen. If a career shift is the antidote, begin looking at online job postings. Find a mentor who can give you advice on transitioning to another field. Start networking. And be sure to enlist your family’s help and support. You may be surprised by how eager your spouse is to temporarily take on more responsibility at home, for example, so that you can work toward a professional certification that will make you—and by extension, your whole family—happier.
“Whatever you do, don’t fixate on the big picture, which is—of course—overwhelming and likely to keep you paralyzed,” Patkin instructs. “Instead, focus on completing the next baby step that will take you closer to where you want to go. The idea is to not just passively ‘hate’ your job, which makes you feel like a helpless victim, but to do something about it.”
Problem 2: The honeymoon phase is (way) over.
Statistically speaking, the “honeymoon” phase of the average marriage lasts less than three years. (If you want to get specific, one poll reveals that you can wave goodbye to those intoxicating feelings of giddiness and infatuation after two years, six months, and twenty-five days.) Often, when “romance” turns to “routine,” both men and women feel a sense of loss. This is a double blow: Not only are you, the husband, feeling less satisfied; you have an unhappy wife to deal with too!
While it’s not the case with every couple, Tim Lott writes that “…many men still see their success as a husband as being connected with their ability to create a world in which their wives or partners can feel content…. So if a woman is not happy and can’t work out why, it’s quite easy to attach blame to the husband. And thus many men I speak to feel under-appreciated.”
What real men are saying: “I still love my wife, I guess, but things between us just aren’t the same as they used to be. I don’t seem to know how to make her happy anymore, and frankly, I don’t get a lot of respect from her these days. I’m worried that we’re going to keep drifting apart. That’s not what I want for us or for our kids.”
What you can do: End your pity party and make your wife feel special. “I don’t want to make this about women not being ‘good wives,’ which may or may not be true depending on the couple,” Patkin comments. “Regardless of whether or not your wife projects her unhappiness onto you, you’re most likely to solve the faded-honeymoon problem by being a good husband.”
If you let your relationship run on autopilot, it will deteriorate. So put more work into your marriage than you do into anything else: your house, your car, or your job, etc. In order to give your marriage regular tune-ups, start by remembering what you said you’d do when you made your vows: Love your spouse. Honor her. Cherish her. Comfort her. Remain faithful to her. Do these things in good times and bad, in sickness and in health—every day of your marriage.
“I know from experience that if you get it right here, it’s easier to get it right in all of the other aspects of your life, because the person who’s closest to you will be there to support you and will have your best interests at heart,” Patkin shares. “A happy marriage is the cornerstone of a happy life—if your marriage isn’t good, you’re going to have trouble feeling fulfilled in other areas as well.”
Problem 3: Men are too ambitious.
From the time they receive their first outstanding report card or Little League trophy, many men begin a lifelong quest to chase the buzz that comes with success, most often in their careers. For others, financial success and the ability to live a certain lifestyle is seen as a “necessity.” But despite fulfilling many of their ambitions, it’s common for men to consistently feel less satisfied than they’d like.
For one thing, you may find it difficult to relax and enjoy your current achievements because you’re constantly focused on the next big thing. Plus, a disproportionate focus on professional success causes your relationships, mindset, and physical health to suffer.
The bottom line is, ambitious men are so focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder that we have forgotten how important quality of life is. We have accepted stress, unfulfilling careers, strained relationships, and little free time as the price we have to pay for the “good life.” Problem is, happiness has totally gotten lost in the equation, and the lives we’re living aren’t “good” at all.
What real men are saying: “I think most people wish they had more money. For me, I would love to build my dream house…not worry about income, and pursue a labor of love without needing to worry about how I will finance my life.”
What you can do: Define happiness for yourself. “Prior to my breakdown, it was normal for me to work seventy- or eighty-hour weeks,” Patkin recalls. “In my personal dictionary, ‘rest’ and ‘relaxation’ were synonymous with ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘slacking.’ Boy, was I wrong. I learned the hard way that ambition can drive you over the edge as well as to the top. There’s no way around it—you simply must be firm about creating and maintaining a healthy work/life balance.”
The first step is realizing that often success and happiness are not the same thing. Do some real (and maybe difficult) self-reflection to determine what happiness looks like for you. And be ready to accept that it might not look like the life the “Joneses” are living.
“If you remain skeptical, remember this: No one looks back on their lives at age eighty and says, ‘Gee, I wish I’d spent less time with my family and friends and more time at the office,’” reminds Patkin.
Problem 4: Men don’t take care of themselves.
With a job, a family, and a home to maintain, who has time to sculpt a perfect body in the gym? Or even to consistently eat nutritious meals, for that matter? Yes, real life has its limitations, and unlike celebrities who have the help of personal trainers and nutritionists, most men have to accept that. Yet if they’re really honest with themselves, they may acknowledge that they choose to prioritize things other than health and fitness—and all too often that choice leads to a poor body image and sometimes even health problems.
What real men are saying: “For me, and I am sure many others, men do not accept their body types—especially if they do not have big muscles, look thin, or feel fat…. Society makes people feel they need to be a certain way or they are not good enough…. I think men tend to compare themselves to what seems socially acceptable instead of understand their own body and optimizing their body type to the best of their ability and health.”
What you can do: Start small, but get moving! “If you want to feel better about what you see in the mirror, you have no choice but to take better care of yourself,” says Patkin. “The good news is, you don’t have to join a gym, sign up for exhausting classes, and completely reorder your life. If you don’t exercise already, commit to walking, biking, or swimming for just twenty minutes every other day. Work your way up from there.”
In addition to looking better, you’ll feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges. Exercise will also improve your sleep, and it’s a natural anti-depressant that will help your attitude and outlook. The other, often more difficult, half of the equation is learning to love yourself for who you are.
“No, you’ll never be Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey…and that’s okay!” Patkin promises. “Build yourself up more and beat yourself up less. Celebrate every little success—each pound lost, each day you feel more energized, each compliment you receive.”
Problem 5: Men don’t have strong support systems.
Generally speaking, women seem to have “how to be a good friend” figured out much better than men do. The reasons are many: Women tend to be more collaborative, empathetic, prosocial, and just plain willing to share what they’re thinking and feeling—especially with each other. Men, on the other hand, tend not to be as emotionally intertwined with others. Especially in Western culture, they’re supposed to be “strong” and “self-sufficient.”
While there are various movements encouraging men to get in touch with their softer sides, many men lack the deep, open, and supportive social networks their female peers enjoy. They don’t share, ask for advice, and vent nearly as often; instead, they keep things to themselves. As a result, men are more prone to feeling lonely, overwhelmed, and isolated. (For example, studies reveal that on a number of fronts, women cope better with divorce than men.)
What real men are saying: “How do we create, maintain, and promote men’s friendships? Women seem to do a much better job at this, as in ‘the girls,’ while we at best watch sports together while drinking beer…I’m talking about relying on each other and mutual support, as friends should be (both for good things and bad).”
What you can do: Fill up your social calendar with the right people. “Take a page out of your wife’s book!” Patkin instructs. “I’m serious! But since women don’t have it all figured out either (don’t tell my wife I said that), there are three things I recommend you focus on in particular. First, make it a priority to spend more time with friends and acquaintances who are positive, who refresh you, who encourage you, and who have things in common with you. Gently back away from people who are constantly pessimistic, who drain you, or who don’t enhance your life.
“Secondly, treat your friends as you’d like them to treat you: Be encouraging. Offer help without being asked, and with no strings attached. Don’t just call or stop by when you have a problem. Chances are, your buddies will reciprocate!
“Finally, ask yourself which is more important: your pride or your well-being and happiness,” he concludes. “Realize that asking for help, support, advice, or simple companionship isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s actually a very wise strategy.”
Problem 6: Men are losing their identities.
Women do their darnedest to have it all and do it all. They’re “leaning in” more than ever before. (And good for them!) However, society’s shifting roles and expectations have left many men wondering where they stand. In many households, guys are no longer the sole breadwinners (and may even be out-earned by their wives), and we’re definitely not autocratic “heads of families” anymore. Plus, we face the doghouse if we aren’t willing to share in domestic chores, and we’re expected to be (at least a little bit) touchy-feely. No wonder many men—especially the traditionalists—are confused about and somewhat dissatisfied with how they fit into twenty-first-century life.
What real men are saying: “How the hell can we strike the right balance (if at all possible) between being ‘da man’ of the house, the conqueror of hearts…and at the same time be sensitive, respond to the needs of your woman (and children), etc.?”
What you can do: Stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Instead, find a square hole! “Whenever you’re feeling insecure, it’s normal to try to compensate by focusing on the areas in which you feel you’re lacking,” Patkin points out. “But this strategy only increases your feelings of inadequacy. I spent years trying to be handy around the house because I thought that’s what a man ‘should’ do. But usually, after hours of trying to fix the plumbing or put together a piece of furniture, I’d have made little progress…and I’d be frustrated and angry.
“Finally, I accepted that I would never be Mr. Home Improvement, and that the extent of my handyman skills was replacing a light bulb,” he adds. “And guess what? I was so much happier! Not only was I no longer spending time and energy trying to fill a role that I just wasn’t made for (and beating myself up when I didn’t succeed), I also had more time to spend on activities that I was good at and that I enjoyed.”
That’s the essence of Patkin’s advice to all men: Stop trying to figure out what your role as a modern man “should” be and focus on playing to your strengths within your own family. Be open and honest with your spouse and together decide how best to divide up household responsibilities. It’s okay if those roles don’t resemble those of your friends and neighbors. If your wife is better at handling finances and prefers to put in longer hours at work, it’s not a negative commentary on your effectiveness as a husband. (And anyway, maybe you’re a spectacular cook and have a lot more patience with the kids!)
“Remember, nobody can really have or do it all,” reminds Patkin. “So don’t cling to an identity that’s unhealthy for you and your family. And if you’re ever feeling conflicted or unsure about what you should prioritize, always put relationships with your spouse and kids first.”
Problem 7: Depression is taboo for men.
There’s a prevailing opinion in our society that depression—not feeling a bit down in the dumps, but clinical depression—isn’t something that should happen to men. “Real” men, the thinking goes, should be able to power through discouragement. Tough guys don’t let their emotions “get the better” of them. If a guy is strong, he’ll eventually snap out of whatever funk he’s in. That type of thinking is wrong—and very dangerous.
Depression is influenced by your brain biochemistry, which you don’t have control over, and is technically a loss of energy, not sadness. It’s also a medical illness that needs to be treated. Six million men are diagnosed with depression each year in America…but how many more are suffering in silence because they are ashamed to ask for help?
What real men are saying: “The last thing I want to tell anybody is that I feel hopeless and overwhelmed all the time. No matter how much I work or rest or even drink, it doesn’t go away. I can tell that my wife is worried because I snap at her and the kids all the time, but I can’t seem to stop. I think I’m failing as a man.”
What you can do: Get the facts and don’t be afraid to ask for help! “As someone who’s been there, I believe that men in particular are hit hard by depression because they are less likely than women to admit that they’re struggling,” shares Patkin. “It helped me immensely to learn the facts about depression: what causes it, how prevalent it is, how it can be treated, and how it manifests. (For example, did you know that depressed men experience different symptoms from women, like irritability and fatigue instead of tears and sadness? I didn’t!)
“Secondly, you need to understand what can happen if you refuse to get help,” he continues. “Not only can your physical and mental health deteriorate, but you’ll probably hurt your career and definitely your family. If you’re anything like me, that last consequence will motivate you to take action, even if the possibility of improved quality of life for yourself doesn’t. I promise, the people who care about you will not think less of you for getting the help you need.”
Note to Editor: See attached tipsheet for more information on men and depression.
“Here’s the thing: Happiness doesn’t just happen,” Patkin concludes. “It’s something you have to prioritize and consciously work toward every day. And often, those efforts are just plain hard because they force you to go against what society says you should do to be admired, successful, and satisfied. Please, take it from me—a ‘successful’ life that you don’t enjoy isn’t really successful at all. So, men, get serious about identifying the choices, actions, and attitudes that will improve your quality of life. Then put them into practice for your sake and for the sake of your children, who will most likely grow up to share your attitudes and outlook!”
About the Author:
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness : One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People , and The Sunny Days Secret: A Guide for Finding Happiness (coming 2014), grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.