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Spread It Around -- Loneliness May Be Contagious

5 years ago
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"Wouldn't it be fine bein' lonely together?"
-- Barry Manilow

It's not often that science comes in to justify the truth of old Barry Manilow songs, but a new joint study from the University of Chicago, Harvard and the University of California-San Diego suggests that we really do get lonelier together.

The study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reports that loneliness is contagious not only to friends, but to friends of friends. While people's friends and acquaintances were susceptible to feeling increased loneliness, though, family members remained relatively immune. Additionally, women were more likely than men to respond to a friend's loneliness by reporting similar feelings.

The study's most interesting conclusion, though, is that feelings of social isolation tended to lead to literal isolation from communities. Researchers found that as people reported feeling lonelier, they were more likely to move to the outskirts of their community and have contact with fewer and fewer people -- as demonstrated in this relationship chart (color-coded by intensity of loneliness) available via Science News. This touched off a gradual domino-like movement through the community.

But, should we really imagine loneliness spreading through communities "like a cold," as researchers suggest? Before we do, it seems like there are still some unanswered questions about the impact of geography. Data for the study was collected from the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed three generations of its 5,000 original participants from Framingham, Mass., since 1948. At their regular examinations for the study, each participant took a questionnaire measuring their sense of isolation, and the results were compared against each other over the 10-year period.

While the study does provide an excellent means of looking at heredity and familial impact, it also presents a problem, as more and more of the national population moves into urban areas and away from mid-sized communities like Framingham, with its population of just over 65,000.

What does it mean to feel connected in a city, where many people haven't met their neighbors? I'm not entirely sure, but it does mean something a little different than in a town where you instinctively greet your neighbors, your neighbors' children and your neighbors' pets by name. At the same time, technology makes it easier to feel like part of a community without a set geographic base -- and to have contact with a large number of people with whom you may have little or no personal interaction.

Of course, being able to cast a wider net for connections is no assurance that people will feel closer -- in fact, the opposite is just as likely to be true. Still, as far contagions go, loneliness seems a harder than usual one to measure.
Filed Under: Health Care, Culture
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