Illustration by Sibel Ergener

Why Are Alpha Males Such Sad Sacks?

Turns out you really can’t fuck your way to happiness

By now, you may have heard about a recent psychology study that confirmed what women have long suspected: Sexist men aren’t just assholes, they’re deeply mentally unwell.

The study, a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, found that men who subscribe to traditional ideas about masculinity are more likely to suffer psychological and behavioral problems, such as depression, anxiety, poor body image, substance abuse and being unable to form meaningful relationships.

The researchers identified 11 attitudes and behaviors generally regarded as masculine: a desire to win, a need for emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, sexual promiscuity (e.g., “playboy” behavior), self-reliance, primacy of work (i.e., an obsession with professional success), power over women disdain for homosexuality and pursuit of status. The more strongly men associate those characteristics with manliness, the more likely they are to suffer psychological problems.

But one part of the study was particularly interesting, especially through the lens of pop culture: The association between traditional masculinity and the negative mental health outcomes mentioned in the study are especially strong for men who emphasized self-reliance, power over women and playboy behavior.

There are two possible explanations here: Either depressed men are trying to work and fuck their way to happiness, or being a controlling, workaholic, sex addict makes one depressed. Either way, the study proves that no amount of money, sex or power will fill the void in men’s souls, troubling when you consider men are often socialized to believe these things are ends unto themselves, the ultimate rewards in life. Instead, they appear to be the marks of a lonely existence.

This male archetype — let’s call him the Secretly Depressed Super Successful Guy — is a common thread in pop culture. The foremost example is Don Draper, the handsome, charismatic, preternaturally talented ad-man alpha male who just can’t seem to love himself, no matter how many women’s lives he ruins. Other notable examples include Nicolas Cage’s character in The Family Man, the hotshot, Ferrari-driving Manhattan finance executive who learns his life would be richer if he traded it in for a wife, kids and house in the suburbs, and Michael Fassbender’s in Shame, a man who deals with his childhood trauma by having all kinds of hedonistic, faceless sex.

We’re familiar with the Secretly Depressed Super Successful Guy, but his existence persists in both the fictional and real worlds. Society knows money, sex and power are empty pursuits, yet men continue to pursue them anyway. This is exactly why traditional masculinity is so toxic: It teaches men to want what won’t make them happy.

More generally, the study portrays the traditional masculine ideal as a well-known, well-paid, physically chiseled man who gets laid all the time, never shows weakness and generally doesn’t need anything from anyone (least of all other men, because that would be hella gay). And the findings reinforce the idea that institutionalized sexism is bad for both genders — traditional ideas about masculinity degrade and subjugate women while placing unattainable expectations on men that only leave them feeling inferior and depressed.