According to a new study of more than 4,000 men, the perception that masculinity negatively affects one’s behavior is linked to lower mental well-being. The findings shed light on the relationship between public perceptions of masculinity and an individual’s mental health, challenging previous notions that masculinity is inherently harmful or detrimental. The study has been published International Journal of Health Sciences.
For decades, masculinity has been a topic of both public and academic debate. Historically, qualities such as being active, dominant, and self-possessed were synonymous with masculinity. However, there was a noticeable shift from the 1980s. Masculinity began to be viewed through a more critical lens, often associated with negative traits such as misogyny and homophobia, and associated with issues such as poor mental health and aggressive behaviour.
This transition was fueled in part 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 image, and what impact does it have on men’s mental health? This was the main question that guided the researchers in this extensive study.
“Suicide is three times more common among men than among women worldwide, yet the causes tend to be overlooked or misunderstood,” said study author John Barry, co-founder of the Center for the Psychology of Men and author of Perspectives on the Psychology of Men. : Introduction”.
“When I began studying male psychology more than a decade ago, I based my hypothesis on the dominant explanation of the time: that poor mental health and suicide were associated with masculinity. My findings did not convincingly support this hypothesis, so I dug deeper into the existing research and realized that much of it was based on a surprisingly negative view of masculinity that was not grounded in the reality of male mental health and suicide.”
The study, a comprehensive online survey, was conducted among 2,023 men from the United Kingdom and 2,002 from Germany. The survey, designed to gather a wide range of data, asked about demographic details such as age, marital status and employment, as well as more subjective areas such as their personal values and their health.
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 effect on them, or whether they saw it as 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 who were more satisfied with their health also reported higher mental positivity.
Perhaps most notably, the study found that men who held 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 like, “Masculinity prevents me from talking about how I feel about my problems,” they tended to have better overall mental outlooks.
In Germany, not only was a less negative view of masculinity correlated with better mental health, but a positive view of masculinity was also a significant predictor of higher mental positivity. Positive views of masculinity included attitudes such as feeling protective of women and wanting 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 like ‘toxic masculinity’ because these ideas can be internalized by men and boys and have a negative impact on them. In some cases, men with serious mental health problems can ‘manifest’ antisocial behaviour, so it is likely that toxic terminology – in the media, schools, government and elsewhere – actually increases the likelihood of the behavior they are intended to reduce. Instead, it might help if we put more emphasis on the ways that masculinity can have a positive impact on men and society.”
Across age groups, men generally agreed that their sense of masculinity was related to being protective of women. However, the study revealed interesting generational differences in how masculinity affects violent attitudes toward women. Older men, more than their younger counterparts, disagreed with the idea that masculinity “makes me prone to violence against women.” On average, men over the age of 60 generally disagreed with this proposition, while men under the age of 40 were significantly more likely to agree with it.
“Men who felt protective of women had better mental well-being, while those who felt violent toward women had lower mental well-being,” Barry said. “I was surprised and saddened that younger men, under the age of 35 or 40, believe that masculinity makes them feel violent towards women. I suspect that this self-identification is due to the influence of negative notions of masculinity that have been perpetuated in our culture for decades.”
While the study provides valuable insights, it is important to note its limitations. The cross-sectional nature of the survey means that while it may highlight correlation, it cannot conclusively prove cause and effect.
“Correlation is not causation,” Barry said. “This is the case in many studies, but it’s worth noting that, for example, we can’t tell from this study whether poor mental well-being 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 that follow the same individuals over time can provide a deeper understanding of how perceptions of masculinity develop and affect men’s mental health over the course of their lives.
“It’s not people’s fault that they think masculinity is bad. After all, we all live in an information soup created by policymakers, governments, academia and the media, all telling us in different ways that masculinity is a problem.” , Barry added. . “However, the psychology profession needs to find its way out of this fog in order to properly understand and deal with male psychology and male mental health.”
The research was titled: “The belief that masculinity negatively affects one’s behavior is associated with decreased mental well-being.”
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