Study Finds Loneliness May Be Transmitted to Others

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"Loneliness can spread from person to person to person -- up to three degrees of separation," so said James H. Fowler, co-author of the study published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

“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," says the professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

The new study not suggests that loneliness can be contagious; it further concludes that people who are lonely tend isolate themselves in smaller groups and influence others in those small groups to also feel lonely.

Fowler believes that the data they gathered shows that the average person feels lonely approximately 48 days out of the year, but for the lonely, that feeling can be always present. Furthermore, the study point out that people who felt lonely were more apt to be friendless, or unable to maintain friendships for a long period. In comparison, people who are rarely or never lonely only tend to lose about 8 percent of their friends over a four-year period.

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The researchers worked with over 5,100 participants and constructed graphs tracking the participants' ongoing friendship patterns over two to four years. They discovered that among neighbors, an increase of loneliness of just one day per week triggered a rise in loneliness among neighbor-friends, as well. They further found that loneliness could actually spread throughout the community as affected neighbors saw each other less.

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, called the study impressive and added that the contagion of loneliness could be 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," he says.

The question researchers are left with is what can be done to help the lonely and integrate them better with others? Leary suggested that people who associate 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 stating, "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."

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