Having just one lonely friend, relative, or neighbor increases your risk of feeling lonely by 52%, according to a new study led by John Cacioppo, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. Loneliness, in fact, spreads through networks of friends, families, and neighbors more quickly and easily than a sense of social connectedness does, the study says.
It’s the latest research from a team who has discovered that your friends and family influence you more than you may think. In a series of recent studies, Cacioppo's coauthors, Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, and James H. Fowler, PhD, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, have shown that happiness, smoking, and obesity can all spread through social networks.
But can you really “catch” loneliness? The researchers suggest that a lonely person's body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice may actually make the people around him or her feel lonely too.
What’s more, loneliness appears to be a vicious cycle, according to the study, published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Lonely people tend to lose friends over time, which makes them feel more lonely and isolated; it pushes them to the edge of the social web.
Plus, loneliness spreadsfar. The effects were seen not only in the lonely person’s close friends, but his friends’ friends and his friends’ friends’ friends.
People in the study felt lonely 48 days a year, on average. A person surrounded by lonely connections would spend six hours more a week feeling lonely than someone with no direct links, the study found.
Loneliness was more contagious among friends than family. The size of a person's family didn’t influence the likelihood of being lonely, and, surprisingly, a lonely spouse had less of an impact than a lonely friend.
Distance was also a factor. Lonely friends who lived more than a mile away had less of an effect on the loneliness of others, and their ability to make other people lonely declined the farther away they were. A similar pattern was found among neighbors; a lonely person caused his next-door neighbors to feel lonelier, but not his neighbors farther down the block.
The good news is that while loneliness may be contagious, it isn't without a cure. The spread of loneliness can be stopped, and lonely people aren't doomed to a sad, solitary life, says Cacioppo, who likens loneliness to physical paina warning sign that alerts us to problems that need to be addressed.
“In the case of loneliness, we’re taking care of our social body,” he says. When social connectedness “starts to slip away, loneliness is a…signal that notifies us so we can act on it.”
Loneliness is different from social isolation, although there is some overlap between the two. The level of a person's social isolation (or connectedness) is typically measured using outward characteristics such as marital status, number of friends, and frequency of social activities. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a subjective measure that researchers define as perceived social isolationhow isolated a person feels.
The health effects of loneliness can be serious. Research has shown that people who feel lonely are at greater risk for mental and physical ills, from depression and alcoholism to obesity, heart disease, and weakened immunity.