Health & Fitness

The loneliness virus

Written by: Hiyaguha Cohen

February 14, 2021

Health blog

Article overview:

Research shows that two or three or more can be more lonely than one alone because loneliness spreads from person to person. You’d think isolation was the main factor leading to loneliness, but in fact the study found just the opposite – loneliness led to isolation. And lonely people have almost the same number of social interactions as those who are not lonely. So that you don’t accidentally mix with lonely people and fear contagion, it is good to know that studies have also shown that happiness is contagious.

Can loneliness spread?

Contrary to what the band Three Dog Night sang in 1969, “One” may not be “the loneliest number”. In fact, research shows that two or three or more can be more lonely than one alone because loneliness spreads from person to person. All in all, Social Distortion could be closer to the brand with their song “Don’t Drag Me Down”.

Loneliness is not caused by being alone

Of course, we tend to equate loneliness with being alone, but that’s not necessarily what the study shows. The study was conducted by scientists from the University of Chicago, UC San Diego, and Harvard University, and checked the loneliness data of approximately 5000 participants in the Framingham Heart Study. This longitudinal study began in 1948 with the original intention of deciphering the factors that lead to cardiovascular risk. Every few years over a six-year period, participants answered questions about how often they felt lonely. Participants who said they never felt lonely usually saw four social contacts per week, while those who felt lonely for five or more days a week had social interactions with an average of 3.4 people – just slightly less than those who were not lonely Subjects. Having extra friends didn’t help much – each extra friend only reduced loneliness by 0.04 days a week or two days a year.

More importantly, those who started not reporting loneliness were much more likely to become lonely after spending time with lonely friends or family. The research found that family members and friends of subjects who reported loneliness were 52 percent more likely to report loneliness two years later. The closer a subject was to a lonely person, the greater the likelihood that the subject will also become lonely. And the loneliness spread far beyond the immediate circle of contact – even friends of friends were “infected” by a lonely person.

Loneliness leads to isolation, not the other way around

You’d think isolation was the main contributor to loneliness, but in fact the study found just the opposite – Loneliness led to isolation. The study director Dr. John T. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago said: “We have identified an extraordinary pattern of contagion that results in people being pushed to the edge of the social network when they get lonely. On the periphery, people have fewer friends, but their loneliness causes them to lose the few bonds they have left. “In other words, people don’t want to hang out with a depressed, lonely person. When you get lonely, others shun you, moving to the periphery of your social circle, leaving you increasingly isolated. (And maybe there is an unconscious survival instinct that drives this phenomenon, as loneliness is contagious and who wants to get this disease?)

Loneliness health consequences

From a health point of view, the loneliness certainly justifies avoidance maneuvers in view of the consequences. For one, you endanger loneliness with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-destructive behaviors, including suicide. According to Dr. Cacioppo studies show that lonely people often have trouble sleeping well. They have impaired cognitive functions and they tend to stop exercising. These things lead to physical health consequences.

For example, studies have shown that lonely people have higher levels of stress hormones in their blood, and it’s hardly a secret that stress leads to illness. Lonely people have higher blood pressure and a greater chance of becoming obese. In 2007, a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry concluded that loneliness doubled the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A 2008 study by Yale University found that solitary, isolated rats were 300 percent more likely to develop breast tumors than rats that lived in social groups. In addition, the rats isolated tended to have more deadly tumors. “The effects [of isolation] are the same as or greater than the effects of cigarette smoking – this also includes a significantly shorter lifespan, ”said Research Director Dr. Gretchen Hermes.

Friendship quality more important than quantity

Unfortunately, the cure for loneliness isn’t as simple as adding hundreds of Facebook friends. (Sorry, Facebook.) In fact, Dr. Cacioppo that the quality of the connection is much more important than the quantity. “In 1984 the question was asked [in a survey]How many confidants do you have? And the most common answer was three. That question was repeated 20 years later, in 2004, and the most common answer was zero, ”he says. “People don’t have less social contacts, but I think they are more rushed social contacts. Americans, on average, have more friends than Europeans. But what makes a friend is different in America than it is in Europe. “He notes that Americans move more than Europeans and therefore have fewer lifelong, deep friendships.

The typical respondent in the study reported feeling lonely for 48 days a year. Women seemed to suffer from loneliness more than men, and they were more prone to contamination from other lonely people. The quality of friendships was also much more important in the loneliness factor than the quality of family relationships.

How to help the lonely

Given the health effects of loneliness and the fact that it is contagious, should lonely people be sent to a distant place to be isolated like lepers? No, say the researchers – lonely people have to be brought back into the social network. Loneliness can undermine society if not controlled, given how it spreads, and therefore it needs to be addressed. “An important implication of [the study] is that interventions to reduce loneliness in our society can benefit from aggressively targeting people on the periphery in order to fix their social networks, ”the authors conclude. “By helping them, we can create a protective barrier against loneliness that can prevent the entire network from disintegrating.”

So that you don’t accidentally mix with lonely people and fear contagion, it is good to know that studies have also shown that happiness is contagious. Or as Bobby McFerrin said, “Don’t worry, be happy!” In fact, almost every mental condition seems to be contagious, so you might as well not have to worry about giving love and support to your lonely friends – just keep optimistic people in the starting blocks as antidotes.

And when all else fails, you can hire Steve Martins The Lonely Guy and let yourself be forgotten.

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