One more thing that's contagious...

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.

“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.”

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...

...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.

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. emotion that evolved to bring us together [loneliness] 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.
From The loneliness network - The Boston Globe.

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