Holding the view that masculinity negatively impacts one’s behavior is associated with lower mental well-being, according to a new study of more than 4,000 men. The findings shed light on the relationship between societal perceptions of masculinity and individual mental health, challenging previous notions that masculine attitudes are inherently harmful or detrimental. The study was published in the International Journal of Health Sciences.
For decades, masculinity has been a topic of both public and academic debate. Historically, traits like being active, dominant, and self-contained were synonymous with masculinity. However, from the 1980s, there was a notable shift. Masculinity began to be viewed through a more critical lens, often associated with negative traits like misogyny and homophobia, and linked to issues such as poor mental health and aggressive behavior.
This transition was partly fueled by sociological theories, leading to what some call a “deficit model” of masculinity – focusing primarily on its negative aspects. But how accurate is this negative portrayal, and what impact does it have on men’s mental health? This was the central question guiding the researchers in this extensive study.
“Suicide is around three times higher in men than women worldwide, yet the reasons for this tend to be overlooked or misunderstood,” said study author John Barry, the co-founder of the Centre for Male Psychology and author of “Perspectives in Male Psychology: An Introduction.”
“When I started researching male psychology over a decade ago, I based my hypothesis on the dominant explanation of the time – that poor mental health and suicide are linked to masculinity. My findings didn’t convincingly support this hypothesis, so I delved deeper into existing research and realized a lot of it was based on a surprisingly negative view of masculinity that did not seem grounded in the reality of male mental health and suicide.”
The study, a comprehensive online survey, was conducted with 2,023 men from the United Kingdom and 2,002 from Germany. The survey, designed to gather a wide range of data, asked questions about demographic details like age, marital status, and employment, as well as more subjective areas such as their personal values and how healthy they felt.
A key part of this survey was the Positive Mindset Index, a tool used to measure mental positivity. This scale consists of questions designed to assess feelings of happiness, confidence, control, emotional stability, motivation, and optimism.
The survey also included several questions specifically about masculinity, designed to understand how men perceive its impact on their lives. These questions were grouped into categories that reflected whether men saw masculinity as having a negative or positive impact on them, or whether they considered it irrelevant in today’s society.
Men who reported greater satisfaction with their personal growth had significantly higher mental positivity. This was the strongest predictor of mental well-being in both countries. Contrary to stereotypes of declining happiness with age, the study found that older men reported higher levels of mental positivity. Men more satisfied with their health also reported higher mental positivity.
Perhaps most notably, the study found that men who had a less negative view of masculinity reported higher levels of mental positivity. This was particularly evident in the UK sample. In other words, when men disagreed with statements such as “Masculinity prevents me from talking about how I feel about my problems,” they tended to have a better overall mental outlook.
In Germany, not only did a less negative view of masculinity correlate with better mental health, but a positive view of masculinity was also a significant predictor of higher mental positivity. Positive views of masculinity encompassed attitudes such as feeling a sense of protectiveness towards women and a desire to be a strong pillar of support for one’s family.
“‘Toxic masculinity is toxic terminology,'” Barry told PsyPost. “We all need to stop using toxic terminology such as ‘toxic masculinity’, because it is possible these ideas are being internalized by men and boys and impacting them negatively. In some cases, men with serious mental health problems may ‘act out’ in antisocial behaviors, so it is likely that toxic terminology – in the media, schools, government and elsewhere – is actually increasing the likelihood of behaviors they are intended to reduce. Instead, it might help if we highlight more the ways that masculinity can be a positive influence on men and society.”
Across age groups, men generally agreed that their sense of masculinity was associated with feeling protective towards women. However, the study revealed interesting generational differences in how masculinity influences violent attitudes towards women. Older men, more than their younger counterparts, disagreed with the notion that masculinity “makes me inclined to be violent toward women.” On average, men over the age of 60 largely disagreed with this proposition, whereas men under the age of 40 were notably more inclined to agree with it.
“Men who felt protective towards women had better mental wellbeing, whereas those who felt violent to women had lower mental wellbeing,” Barry said. “I was surprised and saddened that younger men, below around age 35 or 40, think masculinity makes them feel violent towards women. I suspect this self-concept is due to the influence of negative concepts about masculinity perpetuated in our culture in recent decades.”
While the study provides valuable insights, it’s important to note its limitations. The cross-sectional nature of the survey means that while it can highlight correlations, it cannot definitively prove cause and effect.
“Correlation is not causation,” Barry said. “This is the case for lots of studies, but worth pointing out that for example we can’t say from this study whether poor mental wellbeing causes people to think negatively about masculinity, or vice versa.”
Looking to the future, this research paves the way for further studies to explore how different cultures and age groups perceive masculinity and its impact on mental well-being. Longitudinal studies, which track the same individuals over time, could provide deeper insights into how perceptions of masculinity evolve and influence men’s mental health throughout their lives.
“It’s not people’s fault they think masculinity is bad, after all, we all live in a soup of information created by policy making organizations, governments, academia and the media, all telling us in various ways that masculinity is a problem,” Barry added. “However the profession of psychology needs to find its way out of this haze in order to be able to properly understand and cope with male psychology and men’s mental health.”