The loneliness network

Strange as it sounds, loneliness may be contagious

The holiday season is entering the home stretch, but flu season is just getting going. And so, we’re warned, the upcoming New Year’s parties and homeward airplane trips and visits to the mall to return our gifts won’t just mean encounters with crowds, they will mean opportunities for infection.

But even as public health officials exhort people to get their shots and sneeze into their sleeves, a more insidious, if less acute, threat to our health may be taking advantage of the holiday season to spread: loneliness.

Loneliness is bad for us. A substantial body of research links loneliness with everything from depression to high blood pressure and cholesterol to poor sleep, weight gain, diminished immunity, and Alzheimer’s disease.

And if a paper published this month is to be believed, loneliness isn’t just a health risk – it is, like the flu, a contagious one: Lonely people make the people around them lonely, too.

The finding grows out of a wave of research into social networks and the ways that emotions and behaviors can spread, epidemic-like, through them. It’s an idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s blockbuster 2000 book, “The Tipping Point,” but one that social scientists have only recently started to find solid evidence for. Two of the most prominent researchers in the field are Nicholas Christakis, an internist and sociologist at Harvard University, and James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and working together they have found that obesity, happiness, and smoking, among other things, are contagious.

Still, there’s something seemingly oxymoronic in the idea that loneliness can be catching. By definition, a lonely person would seem unlikely to spread anything, any more than a hermit could give someone chicken pox. But according to Christakis, Fowler, and John Cacioppo, a psychologist and leading loneliness researcher at the University of Chicago who collaborated with them, making sense of the contagiousness of loneliness demands that we rethink our idea of what loneliness is, and that we come to realize how being surrounded by people doesn’t necessarily protect us from it.

The new research also fleshes out the picture of the varying ways that social phenomena move through networks of family members, friends, and acquaintances. The spread of loneliness is shaped by gender and geography, by where a person finds himself in his web of relationships. Loneliness spreads in a different way from obesity, which spreads in a different way from happiness, and figuring out how exactly they differ may eventually help doctors, social scientists, politicians, planners, educators, and even architects figure out better ways to encourage the behaviors they think are good for us and limit the ones they don’t. With a sense of the larger picture in place, network researchers are turning their attention to figuring out in detail the different mechanisms at work, and figuring out how to use them.

“Not everything that spreads in networks spreads the same way,” says Christakis. “Germs spread differently than money, which spreads differently than ideas, which spread differently than behaviors, which spread differently than emotions.”

This time of year, with its parties and family feasts and mistletoe and bands of carolers – or at least their ubiquity in the ad campaigns and Christmas movies the season relentlessly brings – can be especially difficult for the lonely. Studies have found that loneliness is particularly high during the holiday season due to what researchers call “social comparison”: Surrounded by all of those images of communal cheer, it’s easy to feel like one’s own social life is comparatively empty.

What this drives home is that loneliness can be surprisingly unrelated to one’s actual social situation. The psychological definition of loneliness is “perceived social isolation.” As Cacioppo emphasizes, this means that loneliness and solitude are not the same thing. “Loneliness isn’t being alone, it’s feeling alone,” he says. A person surrounded by others can be lonely if he doesn’t feel like he has a meaningful connection with any of them.

Loneliness, Cacioppo hypothesizes, is an evolutionary adaptation that humans acquired to knit them together into collaborative social groups, increasing their odds of survival in a hostile world. It spurs people not only to form social ties, but to strengthen the ones they have. And the pain of loneliness gives communities a powerful tool in disciplining members who get out of line – from the shunning practices of Native American tribes to the “timeouts” issued in elementary school classrooms.

“It’s a biological signal that motivates you to think about something critical for your genetic legacy. We all have it, just like hunger, thirst and pain,” Cacioppo says.

Different people, Cacioppo has found, vary widely in their susceptibility to loneliness. How lonely a person feels, Cacioppo has found, can be shaped by everything from cultural norms about friendship to childhood upbringing to even genes.

But it can also be determined by those around us. The paper Cacioppo co-wrote with Christakis and Fowler, published in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that having a friend who reports feeling lonely makes a person 52 percent more likely to feel lonely. In another measure, they found that, for each additional day per week a person reported feeling lonely, his friends reported an additional lonely day per month. Not only that, having a friend who has a friend who feels lonely makes a person 25 percent more likely to feel lonely, and at three degrees of separation (a friend of a friend of a friend) the odds are still increased by 15 percent.

The dataset the trio relied on is a map of social connections created by Christakis and Fowler using the Framingham Heart Study, a multigenerational survey that started in 1948 with more than 5,000 Framingham residents and has recorded a wealth of social and medical information about them, their children, and grandchildren. It’s the same data that the two researchers have used to explore the spread of smoking, happiness, obesity, and alcoholism, among other things – work they describe in detail in their book “Connected,” published earlier this year.

The spread of loneliness seems to have its own particular characteristics. Women, for example, seem to be more susceptible than men. Also, the more lonely people a person knows, the more likely she herself is to become lonely. That trait distinguishes loneliness from something like alcoholism: Having an alcoholic friend increases your odds of becoming an alcoholic, but having three alcoholic friends makes you no more likely than having just one. Fowler suggests that this is because drinking, while social, doesn’t need to be all that social. “All you need is one drinking buddy,” he says.

Loneliness, by contrast, seems to spread through an accumulation of encounters. Lonely people are, in general, less pleasant than nonlonely people: more impatient, more moody, more self-pitying. They have, in the language of psychology, “more negative affect,” and each unpleasant encounter they subject their friends to wears on those friends and taxes the friendship, until the friends themselves start to feel lonely, as well. Having more than one lonely friend only accelerates the process.

As a result, an emotion that evolved to bring us together now pushes us apart. We live in a very different social world than the one we evolved for – we have many more social relationships, but most of them are more transient, Cacioppo argues, and feel less vital than those we would have formed in a small embattled tribe on the prehistoric savanna. As a result, he says, when someone begins to act lonely, we’re less likely to see that as a cue to minister to them and more willing to simply cut them off.

Distance also seems to matter to the spread of loneliness. The authors found that living close to a lonely friend was more likely to make their loneliness contagious – if the friends lived more than a mile apart there was no significant effect. This was in contrast to obesity, which, Christakis and Fowler have found, doesn’t require physical proximity to spread. In other work, the two have found that an obese friend who lives in the next state can still make you more likely to gain weight. Christakis suggests that it might just be easier to remotely transmit norms about how much to eat and exercise than emotions. “What we think is that norms can leap great differences in a way that behaviors and emotions cannot,” he says.

So if loneliness is contagious, is there something we can do to inoculate ourselves against it, as individuals or communities? One response is to simply quarantine the lonely. And there is some precedent for this in the animal world. When rhesus monkeys that have been raised in social isolation are introduced by researchers into existing colonies, they are either driven off or killed.

But trying to emulate that model is likely to backfire badly, argue Cacioppo, Christakis, and Fowler. If it were possible to easily form new social bonds, it might make sense to simply cut off our lonely friends and find warm and gregarious replacements. But making friends is hard, and there’s a good chance that, having cut that original bond, the average person won’t find a suitable replacement. That leaves him with one fewer social connection, and that much closer to himself lapsing into loneliness.

“Having a lonely friend is bad, not having the friend at all is worse,” says Fowler.

Loneliness also enfeebles communities. What is most distinctive about the way loneliness spreads, argue Cacioppo, Christakis, and Fowler, is the way it burns bridges behind itself. Being alone is not a prerequisite for loneliness, but lonely people do tend to let their friendships languish and eventually wither away. As a result, loneliness eventually cuts the very links it has spread through, shriveling the social networks in which it becomes endemic.

“These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a crocheted sweater,” the authors write, near the end of the paper.

And while the paper only briefly discusses the question of how to stanch the spread of loneliness, the authors insist that the same networks that propagate loneliness can be used to fight it. By being conscious of the contagiousness of loneliness, we can try to guard against spreading it ourselves, meeting a lonely person’s negative affect with patience rather than absorbing it and passing it on to someone else. We can remind ourselves to think of a neighbor’s loneliness as the manifestation of an innate hunger for connection, and remind ourselves that feeding the hunger is the best way to stop its spread.

“If you know the effects of loneliness, you can stop it by being a bit kinder even if someone’s being a bit hostile,” says Cacioppo. “Rather than transmitting it to others, you can start to reknit the fabric that connects you and me. You can help me become less lonely over time.”

By Drake Bennett – http://www.boston.com

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