Loneliness May Be Catching

TUESDAY Dec. 1, 2009 -- A new study suggests that lonely people attract fellow "lonelies" and influence others to feel lonely, too.

"Loneliness can spread from person to person to person -- up to three degrees of separation," said James H. Fowler, co-author of the study published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

"What this means is that if I don't know anything about you, but I know your friend's friend is lonely, then I can do better than chance at predicting whether or not you will be lonely," he said.

Indeed, the study suggests that not only is loneliness contagious, but lonely people tend to isolate themselves in small groups that somehow compound or increase those feelings of solitude.

According to Fowler, the data suggests that the average person feels lonely about 48 days a year, but for the lonely, that feeling can be ever-present. In addition, the study indicated that people who felt lonely were more likely to be friendless, or constantly shedding friends, a few years later: Compared with those who are never lonely, lonely people can lose about 8 percent of their friends over a four-year period, for instance.

Fowler co-authored the findings, funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, with John T. Cacioppo, professor at the University of Chicago, and Nicholas A. Christakis, professor at Harvard University. The researchers worked with more than 5,100 participants who were the offspring of the original subjects of the landmark Framingham Heart Study.

The team constructed graphs tracking the participants' ongoing friendship patterns over two to four years. They found that, among neighbors, an increase of loneliness of just one day per week triggered a rise in loneliness among neighbor-friends, as well. And that loneliness actually spread throughout the community as affected neighbors saw each other less, the researchers said.

Women appeared more vulnerable than men to "catching" loneliness, the researchers found.

Mark R. Leary, professor and director of the social psychology program at Duke University, whose work zeroes in on the need for social acceptance, called the study impressive in its sample, analysis and conclusion. He added that the contagion of loneliness could be, to some degree, a situation of people mimicking the styles of those around them.

"Non-lonely people who are exposed to lonely people may make others in their network a little more lonely by behaving in these less-affirming ways. Perhaps this is why the effect of loneliness can be seen at three degrees of separation. My friend has a lonely friend, so my friend starts acting less affirming overall, which makes me act a little less positively, which then affects my other friends."

So what can be done to help the lonely, to integrate them better with others? Leary suggested that those who interact with lonely people recognize that their tendency to pull inward emotionally and be less outgoing is a trait of loneliness, not of something else. "It reflects loneliness and a need for connection, rather than indifference, dislike or rejection. People can reach out to their lonely loved one rather than withdraw themselves," he said.

Fowler agreed. "For the mental health provider, this means treating not just the patient, but potentially also the patient's friends," he said. "For the employer, this means emphasizing activities that help their employees to connect to one another socially. For the family member, this means you should tend to your own networks, too, while you help your kin feel more connected."

More information

For more on emotional health, head to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Posted: December 2009


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