Loneliness Can Be Contagious

Loneliness is contagious
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Do you ever feel lonely? The results of one study suggest that your own feelings may actually make the people around you more lonely as well.

According to the results of the study, loneliness can spread much like the common cold. While a cold or flu bug might be spread through a handshake, loneliness can spread through groups of people via negative social interactions. Past research has found that lonely people tend to act more shy, hostile, anxious, and socially awkward. They also tend to interpret social interactions differently, often seeing certain behaviors in others as a form of rejection or dismissal.

The study involved more than 5,000 individuals who were asked to complete a loneliness questionnaire, give a medical history and receive a physical examination every two years to four years over a ten year period. Participants also indicated who their friends and relatives were, and many of these individuals also took part in the study. By looking at the social networks of the participants and the number of lonely days they experienced each year, researchers were able to see how loneliness spread throughout the groups.

The study found that:

  • People feel lonely for approximately 48 days out of each year, on average.
  • People are about 50-percent more likely to experience loneliness if someone they are directly connected to feels lonely.
  • Women report experiencing more loneliness
  • Loneliness is more likely to spread in women's social networks than in men's.
  • Loneliness is more likely to spread in networks of friends, rather than those of family.

The Negative Impact of Loneliness

Earlier research has shown that loneliness can impact stress, heart health, and immunity. But these are not the only areas in which loneliness takes its toll. "Lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who are not lonely," explained John Cacioppo, co-author of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection in an interview with U.S. News and World Report. "Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing us to premature aging."

Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, it is the perception of being alone and isolated that matters most. For example, a college freshman might feel lonely despite being surrounded by roommates and other peers. A widowed man might feel lonely over the holidays even though he is surrounded by his family and friends.

Loneliness Is Becoming More Common

Researchers also suggest that loneliness is becoming more common in the United States. When polled as part of a 1984 questionnaire, respondents most frequently reported having three close confidants. When the question was asked again in 2004, the most common response was zero confidants. This trend is unfortunate since experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but that it is the quality. Having just three or four close friends is enough to ward off loneliness and reduce the negative health consequences associated with this state of mind.

According to Cacioppo, "Society may benefit by aggressively targeting the people in the periphery to help repair their social networks and to create a protective barrier against loneliness that can keep the whole network from unraveling."

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Article Sources

  • Askt, D. (2008, Sept. 21). A talk with John Cacioppo: A Chicago scientist suggests that loneliness is a threat to your health. The Boston Globe.
  • Bryner, J. (2009, Dec. 1) Loneliness spreads like a virus. Live Science.
  • Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (in press). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  • Hendrick, B. (2009, Dec 1). Loneliness can be contagious. WebMD Health News.
  • Shute, N. (2008, Nov. 12). Why loneliness is bad for your health. U.S. News and World Report.