A new study, reported by Tara Parker Pope in the New York Times‘ health blog, ‘Well,’ indicates that when one person in a group begins to feel lonely, the feeling can spread to those around them. The most interesting parts of the story?
1. In a 10-year study of over 5,000 people, researchers were able to determine that loneliness can be contagious by asking participants how many days a week they felt lonely.
2. Researchers found that loneliness followed a distinct path as it spread through social networks. Each additional day of loneliness per week that people experience leads to a little more than one extra day a month of loneliness for those in their social network.
3. The average person experiences feelings of loneliness about 48 days a year.
4. Having a lonely friend can add 17 days of loneliness each year. But every additional friend can decrease loneliness by around 5 percent, or about 2.5 fewer lonely days per year.
5. While some might think that lonely individuals are socially isolated, the study demonstrated that feelings of loneliness can be transmitted either by people who are just periodically lonely, or by people before they begin to sever social ties.
6. According to Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School, a lonely person can destabilize an entire social network. “If you’re lonely, you transmit loneliness, and then you cut the tie or the other person cuts the tie,” he said. “But now that person has been affected, and they proceed to behave the same way. There is this cascade of loneliness that causes a disintegration of the social network.”
So how can you avoid being infected with loneliness? Dr. Christakis recommends paying attention to those on the fringe of a group and helping to meet some of their emotional needs. “When we pay attention to the experiences of those at the periphery, when we make an effort to prevent this sad experience of loneliness, then we can stabilize the whole social network by preventing this kind of unraveling.”