A men’s group is a special form of community. It is a community that meets a man’s desire and need for intimate kinship, support and loyalty. Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., writes in Happier, “Having people about whom we care and who care about us to share our lives with – to share the events and thoughts and feeling in our lives – intensifies our experience of meaning, consoles us in our pain, deepens our sense of delight in the world.” This is what a men’s group is. It is men with whom we share our lives, with no other hope of gain or fear of loss. In our group we say: “We are a brotherhood witnessing to each other’s lives with acceptance, support, and authenticity.”
The research of Ed Diener and Martin Seligman proved that the only external differences between “very happy people” and what they call “less happy people” was that the men who were living an enjoyable life had “rich and satisfying social relationships.” It wasn’t money, health, power, or appearance. It was the kind of social relationships they had. How do such social relationships form, and why do these connections make us happy?
Let me offer a simple theory. During humanity’s long existence we developed the emotional framework that we needed for survival. Our emotional framework includes loving our partner, reproducing, nurturing children, sharing the product of the hunt or found food, and a whole array of other behaviors. One of these emotionally-motivated behaviors is to be bonded with other men in small tribal units.
We no longer live in small clans where a dozen men gathered in the Men’s Hut. We live in a mega-scale society; our cultural units consist of millions or hundreds of millions rather than a few dozen people. These changes have occurred over the last 12,000 years - a very short time relative to our time on the planet. This short time span is not enough for us to have changed our emotional composition. Just as we still need nutrients that are similar to those our ancestors consumed, we also need social units that meet our genetic emotional needs. Attempts to deny the body nutrients will always result in unhealthy bodies. Our bodies may survive, but they will not be bodies filled with vitality. Likewise, denying a man the community structures required by his emotional framework will leave him desperately searching to fill this missing element. A man can have the love of a wonderful partner, a beautiful family, a steady income, security, and even power, but there will still be something more that he needs in order to enjoy the complete life. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote: “Without friendship, no happiness is possible.”
If it is authentic the contemporary men’s group fulfills this natural need. It is the modern equivalent of the tribal “Men’s Hut.” It is the place of kinship, where a man is not his occupation, his income, his athletic prowess, or his achievements. It is a place where he can remove his armor, lift the mask from his face, and simply be a man.
While there are many kinds of men’s groups, there are certain attributes that must be present for a group to fulfill men’s emotional need. These qualities can be found in men’s groups in remote regions of Brazil, on the ancient plains of Siberia, or at a gathering of men in a local library’s community room in the American Midwest. A men’s group is a small gathering of men, between 6 to 12 men that meet frequently. The meeting begins with a signal that this time is exceptional. During the meeting the authentic self is present and shared. It ends with a custom that signals the closing. The leadership of the group is shared. Everyone has equal ownership of his group and must be responsible for its wellbeing.
What is the difference between an authentic men’s group and a men’s organization?
Carl Jung talks of archetypal elements in cultures. By this he means rituals, myths, institutions and even architectural forms that exist in every culture. An authentic men’s group is an archetypal element of every healthy society. By an authentic men’s group I mean a men’s group that meets the genetically encoded needs of men for tribal bonding. Like a healthy diet, such a group must have all the elements that we need for vitality with as few toxins as possible.
Just as many modern foods have been invented for our bodies, not all have been successful in producing healthy individuals. Many have been promoted because their use benefited someone financially or politically. Sometimes well-meaning people have proposed odd diets that became popular but failed in their basic nutrition. Likewise, men’s groups have taken on a thousand different forms in attempts to meet our basic need. Some of these clubs and organizations may contain some of the elements needed; others may be toxic to a man’s psychological and spiritual development. Read more about the history of the development of men’s groups and the “Seven Factors Needed for Success” in the Men’s Group Manual, Chapter Two.