Dr. Walt's Health Blog

Like happiness, loneliness is contagious

Loneliness, like happiness, can be contagious, says recent research showing how feeling lonely can make others lonely, too. Below are the details from a report in USA Today. But, if you’d like to have a free measure of your health, including your physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual health, I’ve designed some assessment tools you can utilize at no cost:

You can also learn more about the health dangers of loneliness and avoiding loneliness in my book 10 Essentials of Happy, Healthy People: Becoming and staying highly healthy. You can see the Table of Contents here, and read the first chapter here.

This particular study by John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, builds on recent research showing that happiness is contagious and spreads through social networks.

Cacioppo worked with the two researchers who did the earlier happiness research: Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, and James Fowler, associate professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego.

“When you feel lonely, you have more negative interactions than non-lonely people,” says Cacioppo, who directs the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “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,” he says.

The researchers found that next-door neighbors who experienced an increase of one day of loneliness a week prompted an increase in loneliness among neighbors who were close friends.

“You can use your friends to get you out of negative moods, whereas when you feel more isolated, you act more negatively toward your friends,” he says.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also found that women were more likely than men to report “catching” loneliness and that the chances of becoming lonely were more likely to be caused by changes in their friendship networks rather than among family.

This study, like the happiness research, is based on data from a study of 5,124 people in Framingham, Mass., average age 64. Over a period of years, they completed questionnaires asking how many days during the previous week they experienced a particular feeling.

Psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies loneliness, say the contagion finding is a “reasonable idea.”

Olds, co-author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, says loneliness is a universal feeling, but people are embarrassed about it.

“They don’t like to admit they’re lonely because they feel like it’s admitting they’re a loser, when in fact, it’s universal,” she says.

Daniel Russell, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University-Ames, says people often have the wrong idea about loneliness.

“You have to keep in mind some people are lonely and have a large number of friends, and some people don’t have any friends and are not lonely,” Russell says.

Because loneliness is associated with various mental and physical illnesses, Cacioppo says, it’s important to help people feel more connected.

“We can actually design urban environments so that loneliness is less likely, and a sense of community is greater,” he says.

Of course, for those of us in faith-communities, we can begin to see how fellowship with each other, while serving and loving each other, can help each of us become and stay more highly healthy.

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