Here’s something to make you smile - 20th March is the International Day of Happiness, a United Nations celebration to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world.
The day is particularly important to me, because my personal mission is to help men be happy and as a result, I’ve spent years working on understanding issues concerning male identity to try and come up with strategies to tackle them.
Why have I decided to focus on addressing the problems men face in a society where they hold the power?
Well, a survey on male identity conducted in 2014 by men’s fragrance brand Lynx, which talked to 3,500 men around the world, found the vast majority of men weren’t living the life they’d love to lead, but rather performing a life they felt pressured into leading by society.
I was working for the brand back then, and the result had a profound impact on me. Because if men aren’t living truly authentic lives and really connecting with their feelings, they will struggle to connect with other people’s feelings and make them happy, or ever be truly happy themselves.
Instead, men are constantly feeling under pressure to ‘perform’ and it’s putting stress on them and causing some of them to breakdown emotionally - and hurt themselves or others, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the reason that suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. It’s why masculinity is in crisis, affecting true gender balance amongst other big social issues.
The feminist movement has been supporting women for more than 100 years, and with very good reason. But I believe a profound breakthrough in feminism will come from tackling the issues surrounding toxic masculinity.
Men are constantly feeling the pressure to ‘man up’ or ‘grow some balls’ – which 98% of men have had said to them at some point – and to conform to other laddish tropes which imply that expressing emotion is forbidden. And this toxic masculinity affects everyone negatively - men, women and children – making us all unhappy.
It’s not necessarily men who are at fault - it’s the stereotypes, the weight of expectations put upon them from the tired old gender constructs they’re constantly bombarded with. Society might talk about these problems, but rarely goes into any depth to consider the key question of how we are raising our men.
From my years of research, I believe there are two main reasons why masculinity is where it’s at right now.
First, the way we define what is to be a man tends to disconnect men from their emotions and their capacity to understand and express their feelings.
Instead of bringing up young men to understand how a situation really makes them feel or what they honestly want from life and to respond accordingly, we encourage them to react to what happens to them in a shallow or risk-averse way – that’s it’s either fight or flight. That life is about surviving rather than thriving. This disconnects them from their real feelings and makes them emotionally clumsy toward others. Unconsciously, they suppress their desires and true interests in order to do what it is expected of them. This is a time bomb waiting to explode.
The second explanation for why masculinity is where it is today is that the way we define success for men is far too narrow. Power and materialism are synonymous with success, irrespective of how men feel about their lives or how responsible they feel for other people’s wellbeing. Why don’t we include these criteria in our view of what it means to be successful?
We encourage boys and men to follow an endless path towards a limited and incomplete idea of success, and on this never-ending journey, they can’t connect with either their own feelings or those of other people.
Consequently, many of them often mask their emotional blockage with addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex or the more socially acceptable over work or excessive sport, among others.
Too many men are defensive, disconnected, don’t show their emotions and they don’t look for help. They don’t talk about how they really feel and society is mostly blind to this.
The social construct of masculinity is not something men are born with. It is something men develop as boys and teenagers to mirror what society tells them is masculine. So tackling the issue of toxic masculinity will require a huge collective effort from the worlds of politics, education, media, entertainment, brands and more – to get men to talk about their feelings more, to ditch the stereotypes, to redefine what it really means to be a man.
I’m convinced that the world is unbalanced in favour of toxic masculinity and that it needs more femininity.
If we are to achieve true gender equality in this #MeToo, #TimesUp era and make society truly happier, we need men who are not conforming to the gender stereotypes of toxic masculinity as they are now, but comfortable with who they really are.
Both genders need to be front and centre of society and helping each other be our authentic selves if we’re truly to achieve equality and, ultimately, happiness. Now that would be something to smile about…