Feeling lonely and forlorn has the ability to spread among groups of people and the reality is that women seem to be more likely to become ‘infected’.
No surprise there…
Using data from a large-scale study, researchers from the University of Chicago, the University of California-San Diego and Harvard found that lonely people tend to transmit their depression to those around them, which eventually led to them also being – and feeling - isolated from society.
"We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely," said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, a leading U.S. expert on loneliness.
Before losing their friends, lonely people transmit feelings of isolation to their remaining friends, who also become lonely.
"On the periphery people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left," Cacioppo said.
Cacioppo added that “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."
Recognising the signs
Because loneliness is associated with mental and physical diseases that can shorten life, Cacioppo said it is important for people to recognise loneliness and help those affected before they move away to the so called ‘edges’.
For the study, the team examined records of the Framingham Heart Study, which originally studied the risks of cardiovascular disease of more than 5,000 people since 1948.
The study has since been expanded and its second generation, which includes another 5,124 people, was the focus of the loneliness research.
The study showed that as people become lonely, they become less trustful of others, and a cycle develops that makes it harder for them to form friendships.
Societies seem to develop a natural tendency to shed these lonely people, something that is mirrored in tests of monkeys, Cacioppo said, adding that this makes it all the more important to recognise loneliness and deal with it before it spreads.
*The findings were published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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