Loneliness is socially contagious
Loneliness conjures up images of solitude and the absence of a social network… with the person virtually falling off the social radar. While this is no doubt true, a 2009 study has shown that lonely people tend to ‘contaminate’ those in their immediate social sphere with loneliness as well.
More than 60 years after its launch in the United States, the Framingham Heart Study (following 5,124 inhabitants between 30 and 74 years old in Framingham, Massachusetts, USA) continues to fascinate academia, with loneliness now on the researcher’s radar.
Three American researchers have studied information gathered during a huge 10-year follow-up study of a population of more than 5,000 people living in the town of Framingham. John Capoccio, a neurologist at Chicago University, James Fowler (California) and Nicholas Chorstakis (Harvard) looked into the 12,000 social interactions of these people with friends and family, and correlated them with their feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Through observing their habits and living conditions, they noticed that the people who felt alone were relegated to the edges of their social network. Furthermore, this loneliness was passed on to their closest family, as if it were contagious.
The researchers noticed that the people who feel the most isolated were found on the outer edges of the social network (blue dots on the picture below, which groups 1019 individuals together). But what is really interesting is that this feeling of isolation tends to be passed on to their circle of friends: having one lonely friend (physically and psychologically) increases the risk of feeling isolated by 40 to 65%, while having a lonely “friend of a friend” only increases this risk by 14 to 36%. With the “friend of a friend of a friend”, there would be an additional risk of 6 to 26%.
On the other hand when there are 4 degrees of separation (“friend of a friend of a friend of a friend”), the tendency towards isolation is no longer contagious.
This social contagiousness, also brought up by other studies on happiness, addiction to smoking, obesity and even suicide, is stronger in the circle of friends than in the family. The three authors emphasize that feeling lonely and isolated does not mean the end of social relationships, but rather dissatisfaction as regards those relationships.
The people who are lonely or who feel lonely tend to curl up, become defeatist and so infect the people around them, before they generally cut off all ties, if this feeling persists.
The importance of social networks
It just so happens that psychologically or physically lonely people (single, bereaved or divorced) are more prone to depression and sleep problems and can be in poor physical shape. These results show the importance of taking the social network into account in the overall anxiety of an individual, in particular in an approach to treatment.
Helping people who find themselves marginalised by their loneliness (pushed away to the edges) would allow the whole network to become more stable.
Source: "Alone in the crowd: the structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network", JT Cacioppo, JH Fowler, NA Christakis, December 2009.
Copyright © 2010 Doctissimo
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