April 22, 2020
Disease and death have a profound way of causing us to focus on our most cherished relationships. Like no other factor in our lives, COVID-19 has prompted us all, men and women alike, to take a step back from our daily grind and reflect on what’s most important. Suddenly, all the day-to-day issues become secondary to the basics of life and that which we value most; our health, our family and our livelihoods.
The shutdown of America and the resulting availability of time has created an explosion in the use of social media as a means to communicate with family and friends. Many who have only sparing familiarity with the technology have increasingly embraced it as a means to stay close and enrich relationships, sometimes to levels that would have not occurred in the absence of COVID-19. The confluence of social distancing and social media have, in many ways, advanced personal interaction among us.
The irony is significant. While the pandemic has jeopardized our health, it simultaneously created a platform to improve our health, particularly in men over 50. By bringing us closer to our loved ones and casting a bright light on these relationships, the virus has raised our level of social and emotional consciousness, effectively strengthening our “why” for leading a healthy lifestyle. In an interesting twist, the coronavirus has created a social opportunity with the potential to translate these technologically enabled relationships into sustained motivation for healthy behavior.
A 2018 study in the American Journal of Men’s Health suggests that patterns of social connectedness among men are diverse, challenging the social science literature that frames men as less able and less interested than women in building emotional and supportive relationships with others. While perhaps not to the level of women, and not yet the norm, the study offers hope that men can engage in meaningful emotional and supportive relationships with loved ones. My own observations of social media posts since the pandemic’s outbreak suggests that, if nothing else, social media is promoting such relationships and male engagement at levels perhaps not yet captured by researchers. Among the many cultural responses to the virus, could it be that it’s bringing out the emotion in men?
Psychologist Ron May says that personal connections bring the most happiness, and Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina is among the experts that believe the suppression of emotion in men is unhealthy. Fredrickson asserts that both positive and negative feelings in men are essential, and that “people infused with positivity – laughter, amusement, interest and inspiration – are healthier, more productive and more generous.”
The coronavirus pandemic certainly has created a need for emotional support between family, friends and even co-workers – with both men and women positioned to fulfill this task. However, since women traditionally have dominated this space, exhibiting inherently better skills at relationship building, I would argue that it's men, and certainly those over 50 who struggle with social interaction, who have an opportunity to leverage this newfound demand for interpersonal connection. The extent to which men can extend themselves into new dimensions of relational interaction and demonstrate social leadership during the pandemic, will not only strengthen their bonds with loved ones, but spur their personal growth and create a platform for healthy behavior post COVID-19. Quite a unique opportunity coming out of a pandemic.
The good news for men over 50 is that while social network size decreases with age, the interactions older adults have with people in their remaining network are rated as more satisfying with age. According to the National Institute of Health, older adults report better quality ties with their children, more positive marriages, closer friendships and an overall greater proportion of positive versus problem-ridden relationships than do middle-aged or young adults.
The stars are aligned like never before. The positive characteristics of age, the tools of social media and the time afforded by the COVID-19 shutdown combine to set the table for a new era of social interaction and the resulting motivation for healthy living. If there is a phoenix to rise out of the tragedy of COVID-19, it’s a new, fortified platform of relationship-driven motivation for men. One that can fuel sustained motivation and provide purpose for a healthy lifestyle.
Can men overcome their historic tendency to minimize the value of social relationships? Will they ever find a reason to make their health and underlying behavior a priority? Will COVID-19 flip men’s behavior on its head and finally drive home the connection of health and happiness in a culturally significant way? I hope so. If there were ever a time for men to step up and seize the moment it’s now.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50."