Loneliness may be catching

People who are struggling with a persistent sense of loneliness or social isolation may cause other people to feel lonely — even people they don’t actually know.

In much the same way that strong emotions such as happiness can spread through social networks, a new US study has found that loneliness can travel from person to person, up to three degrees of separation. So in other words, if your neighbour’s boss’s cousin is feeling lonely, you just might feel it too.

The study, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, followed more than 5,000 participants of the Framingham Heart Study from 1971 to 2001. It was the second generation of a study that began back in 1948 to identify risk factors for cardiovascular disease and has since been expanded to study topics such as obesity, happiness and loneliness.

For the loneliness portion of the study, researchers evaluated participants every two to four years and at the same time collected names of their friends and family members. Using these records, the researchers then constructed graphs mapping the subjects’ social histories as well as information about their reports of feeling lonely.

From this a pattern emerged: Lonely people were, over time, seemingly ‘infecting’ the people around them with loneliness. In fact, if one person reported feeling lonely at one evaluation, his closest connections were 52 per cent more likely to report feeling lonely two years later. The timing, researchers say, rules out the possibility that lonely people simply sought out one another.

And while loneliness was most contagious among close friends and family members, it remained significant up to three degrees of separation — or to your friend’s friend’s friend.

Feeling alone together

On one level, this finding may seem counterintuitive — after all, aren’t lonely people often alone? But social scientists say that loneliness is defined more by the quality of a person’s relationships and perceived social isolation, than the actual number of friends or family members he or she may have. So we can feel unbearably lonely even if we’re not alone — and it is the negative or distrustful behavior lonely people often exhibit that is infectious.

“We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, leader of the study and one of the nation’s leading scholars of loneliness. “On the periphery people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”

Before those relationships are severed, they transmit feelings of loneliness to their remaining friends who also become lonely, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. “These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater,” Cacioppo said.

Ultimately, researchers say, loneliness is a biological signal like hunger or thirst, stemming from the days when our very survival depended on the support of people we could trust. It’s a warning of sorts, telling people that they are not sufficiently connected and are in need of stronger human bonds.

Other findings:

— On average, people felt lonely 48 days in a year. Having a lonely friend, however, can increase this number by about 14 days annually.

— On the other hand, for each extra friend, you lower the frequency of feeling lonely by 0.04 days a week — or about two extra days a year.

— People who are not lonely but who have lonely people in their social network tend to become lonelier.

— Women are more likely than men to experience and ‘spread’ loneliness.

— A person’s chance of becoming lonely was more likely to be influenced by friendship networks than family networks.

Because loneliness is associated with a number of mental and physical diseases that can shorten life, it is important for people to recognize loneliness and help those affected, the researchers concluded.

The health hazards of loneliness

Social connectedness has long been recognized as an important part of healthy aging. While occasional feelings of loneliness or social isolation are natural, persistent loneliness has been associated with a number of health hazards including high blood pressure, obesity, sleep dysfunction, depression, compromised immunity and Alzheimer’s disease. And according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the stress caused by loneliness may even increase the risk of cancer.

Is loneliness a curable disease?

So what can be done to ease loneliness? If you’re feeling cut off or ‘out of the loop’, here are some ways to broaden your network and become more engaged socially:

Revitalize friendships or family relationships. Life is hectic and it’s all too easy to lose touch with friends or even family members. If you haven’t spoken to someone for a while and haven’t felt comfortable trying to get back in touch, drop the guilt (and the grudges) and reach out. (See Keep friendships warm.)

Choose your friends carefully. As much as possible surround yourself with happy, upbeat people, because similar to loneliness, happiness is also contagious. (See Spread the joy.) And even if you’re feeling down, try to remain positive — too much negativity and unrelenting misery can eventually damage a relationship.

Continue challenging yourself. Learning is indeed a lifelong adventure — and an excellent opportunity to expand your social network. Whether it means learning new skills for your work or simply learning for the joy of it, continuing education courses offer a meaningful way to network and make new friends. On a more informal level, book clubs and lecture series are good ways to expand your mind — and your network. (For other ideas, see Vacation meets education.)

Volunteer. Volunteering allows you to strengthen ties to your community and help a cause you believe in. It also broadens your support network and gives an opportunity to meet people with common interests.

Exercise. Exercise is beneficial for both our physical and mental health — and also a great way to meet new people. Consider joining a local gym or fitness club. Dance lessons are also a fun way to make friends, gain skills and get fit at the same time.

Last but not least: if you suspect that someone you know is feeling lonely, reach out. It can make all the difference.

Additional Sources: The University of Chicago press release; WebMD, CNN, Nature.com

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ YinYang

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