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Health & Balance

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Loneliness Can Be Contagious

Lonely People Have a Way of Making Others Feel the Isolation, Researchers Say
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 1, 2009 -- Loneliness can spread like a contagious disease, new research indicates.

Lonely people tend to share their loneliness with others, and their feelings of isolation and despair rub off on friends, neighbors, spouses, and even acquaintances, researchers report in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The team of researchers, led by John T. Cacioppo, PhD, of the University of Chicago, followed 5,214 participants of the Framingham Heart Study from 1971 to 2001. Cacioppo and colleagues studied data on individuals in a second generation of the study.

“We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” Cacioppo says in a news release. “On the periphery, people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”

They found, among other things, that:

  • On average, people felt lonely 48 days in a year.
  • For each extra friend, you lower the frequency of feeling lonely by 0.04 days a week which is two extra days a year.
  • Lonely people tend to move to the edges of social circles.
  • People who are not lonely but who have lonely people in their social network tend to become lonelier
  • Women are more likely than men to report greater degree of loneliness. And, women’s loneliness is more likely to spread to people in their social networks.
  • Peoples’ chances of becoming lonely were more likely to be influenced by friendship networks than family networks.

Also, the researchers report that:

  • Loneliness feeds on itself, as groups develop a tendency to push lonely people to the periphery of social networks.

"An important implication of [the study] is that interventions to reduce loneliness in our society may benefit by aggressively targeting the people in the periphery to help repair their social networks,” the authors conclude. “By helping them, we might create a protective barrier against loneliness that can keep the whole network from unraveling.”

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