Is Loneliness Contagious?

December 2, 2009
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Is loneliness contagious? A recently published study says, yes. It is spread among people, much like a disease. Researchers tracked more than 5,000 people and those with whom they had social contact over the course of ten years, and have recently presented their surprising data.

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The study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was conducted by John Cacioppo, a psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, along with researchers who had conducted prior studies; medical sociology professor Nicholas Christakis at Harvard Medical School, and associate professor of political science, James Fowler at the University of California-San Diego.

The researchers tracked the study participants who are 5,124 people in Framingham, Massachusetts whose average age is 64. These same people have been used in studies which track happiness. For the present study, which was conducted over the course of ten years, the researchers polled participants as as to how many days a week they had feelings of loneliness. This research revealed the contagious nature of loneliness, as well as that it spreads in distinctive paths in social networks.

John Cacioppo said of the research:

“When you feel lonely, you have more negative interactions than non-lonely people…If you’re in a more negative mood, you’re more likely to interact with someone else in a more negative way, and that person is more likely to interact in a negative way.” [But] “the effect of contagiousness stops significantly after three degrees of separation.”

The study published under the title, “Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network,” revealed that participants experienced loneliness on an average of 48 days a year. However, contact with a lonely friend could add 17 additional days of loneliness during the course of a year. Comparatively, each additional friend could decrease loneliness by approximately 5 percent, which researchers state is the equivalent of subtracting two and a half days of feeling lonely per year.

One of the three researchers, Nicholas A. Christakis, who is also co-author of the book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” remarking on the conclusions said:

“People can feel lonely even when they’re surrounded by other people. The traditional perspective on human emotion is that emotions are an individual experience. But we don’t just have these emotions, we show them. Other people can read them, copy them and internalize them.”

All told, the study addresses the question we may not even have thought of asking, is loneliness contagious? Yes indeed.

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