What is it a flue and loneliness have in common? They are both contagious. The psychologist Dr. John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago was now able to show that. Just like an influenza virus can be transmitted, loneliness can be transmitted within a community as well. The US-scientist found out that lonely people actually can infect their direct environment with the feeling to be alone and excluded. “It’s transmitted just like a contagious disease“, explains Dr. Cacioppo.
Searching traces across generations
For their study, Dr. Cacioppo and his team, the psychologists Dr. Nicholas Christakis, Harvard University, and Dr. James Fowler, University of California, benefited from the comprehensive data pool of the Framingham Heart Study, the virtually legendary US study going since 1948 in the town of Framingham in Massachusetts. Whatever reveals cardiovascular risks also provides valuable insight into social networks – and across generations as well. Dr. Fowler and Dr. Christakis already used it to do their study of the epidemiology of happiness.
Regarding this phenomenon loneliness, the US psychologists now analyzed the second Framingham generation, the children of the 1948 veterans: More than 5,200 residents of Framingham, men and women in their middle age, were included in this first cohort. Starting 1984, they began to analyze the data of a bit over 4,500 test persons. Those had stated in questionnaires how many days of the week before they had felt lonely – this survey was made on a regular basis every two years over ten years. In addition to each appointment a comprehensive anamnesis was made. Since most of the friends and relatives were also part of the study, it was easy to check “whether and how loneliness influences the social network of the persons concerned”, says Dr. Cacioppo.
The results of this study were amazing: The feeling of isolation proved to be transmittable. When a test person had stated in a survey that he or she felt lonely it had an influence on his or her direct environment. Of the closest contact persons, friends or relatives of the person concerned, “more than 52 percent felt also isolated and lonely in the following survey” says Dr. Cacioppo. Interestingly enough this effect shows increasingly with friends compared to relatives. In addition it showed that women are more prone to get ‘infected’ with loneliness and that these women do not only jeopardize their direct environment: “Loneliness can also be transmitted to people in contact with friends or family members of lonely people”, explains Dr. Fowler. Twenty five percent of those people stated two years after the survey to also have a feeling of loneliness. According to Dr. Fowler there is even “a third degree of transmittance because ten percent of the contacts of this group stated during the next survey to have a feeling of loneliness themselves”.
Loneliness is not the same as being alone – we all know that you can feel very lonely in the middle of a large crowd. According to Dr. Cacioppo the feeling of loneliness is a ‘fundamental conception, just like hunger, thirst or pain’. In other words: “Loneliness is not the symptom of social isolation but the driving force behind it”.
But how does the loneliness virus get transmitted? By a negative basic attitude, mistrust and resentment: Latest studies prove that lonely people show those and other disadvantageous behaviourisms more intensified.
According to Dr. Cacioppo they react repulsing and often aggressively, are difficult to be around as well as overly shy and timid about their environment. “Lonely persons often look at their social environment as a threat, think bad about others and mistrust them”. At the same time they misinterpret reactions of others often as rejection or attack. This behaviour pattern pushes the person concerned to the edge of their social network – which is only understandable – and bit by bit they lose their contacts. But not only that – the direct environment is dragged into this vortex of negativism and rejection, in short: loneliness.
Which is even more volatile since this condition carries dynamite for the psychological as well the physical health. In the meantime we have plenty of proof and evidence that loneliness can lead to depressions and high blood pressure, it increases the risk to get dementia and weakens the immune system, causes sleep disorders and lets the release of stress hormones escalate. In addition, says Dr. Christakis, lonely people tend to eat less healthy, mostly more fat-laden, they consume more alcohol and nicotine and move less than happy people. Thus it becomes most relevant to stop this cascade of loneliness. Among other things, Dr. Cacioppo and his colleagues recommend, quasi as a ‘vaccination’ against the loneliness virus, to pick up and re-establish connections right away to get lonely people from the edge of society back into the center: “This also calls for the communities and the public institutions”.