Never Mind the Flu—Loneliness is Going Around

TUESDAY, December 1, 2009 ( — Happiness, laughter, and smiles are often described as infectious. It turns out you can catch loneliness too.

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.

Its 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.

Whats 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 spreads—far. The effects were seen not only in the lonely persons 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 didnt 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 pain—a warning sign that alerts us to problems that need to be addressed.

“In the case of loneliness, were 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 isolation—how 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.

Next Page: Women more vulnerable than men [ pagebreak ]
In the new study, Cacioppo and his coauthors used sophisticated mathematical techniques to map social connections among people in the Framingham Heart Study, which has tracked the health of residents of Framingham, Mass., for more than 60 years. (Dr. Christakis and Fowler pioneered the use of Framingham data to examine social networks in this way.)

The study included many relatives, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, so the researchers were able to plot out social links among more than 1,000 participants. At three points between 1983 and 2001, the researchers asked the people how many days in the previous week theyd felt lonely and how many close friends they had. The researchers were able to map how peoples social connections changed over time, and how these connections related to their loneliness at a given point.

The researchers also found that women were more vulnerable to “catching” loneliness than men. This makes sense, says Kathryn Adams, PhD, an assistant professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Science at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland.

“Emotional relationships are…more important to womens self-identities,” says Adams, who has studied loneliness in older adults, but wasnt involved in the current study. “If they dont have the best relationships…they may feel it more. Men are more able to just get along and not feel lonely.”

The study has some limitations, Adams says. The researchers used only a single measurement of loneliness, and while the study includes a large amount of data, the effect of loneliness on an individual may itself be “smallish,” she says.

The researchers discovered what they call a "rich-gets-richer cycle" at work. People with more friends felt lonely less often, and were also protected from becoming lonely in the future. But people who reported feeling lonely at one assessment point tended to have about 8% fewer friends at their next assessment point, about four years later. In other words, feeling isolated actually made them more isolated.

It can be difficult for lonely people to find their way back into the social fold, because they are often socially awkward, anxious, and hostile, says Cacioppo, who has been studying loneliness for 15 years.

However, its not impossible. Start by putting things in perspective, says Adams. “I think its important for people to recognize that sometimes theyre going to be lonely—to not catastrophize it,” she says. “Loneliness is a feeling, and you can sometimes get past it and enjoy the time by yourself that you have and do other things.”

Preparing yourself for situations in which you're likely to feel lonely is also helpful, says Cacioppo. For example, he says, if youre offered a promotion that involves moving overseas, far from family and friends, and choose to accept it, do so with the understanding that you may feel lonely at first—but that youll make connections again. “It doesnt mean dont take the promotion, but know what youre getting into.”

Its not enough to tell yourself—or a lonely friend or relative—to "just reach out to other people," says Adams. "It has to be the right kind of reaching out and the right kind of people.”

When loneliness becomes chronic, the “right kind of reaching out” can include joining organized groups involved in something that interests you, or even seeking out group therapy. “Hopefully it may lead to other things,” Adams says.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles