Is Loneliness Contagious?

Researchers say that loneliness can spread through social networks like the common cold. In other words, people can "catch" the emotional states they observe in others.

The data from the current study came from the famous Framingham Heart Study, a longitudinal study that followed the same group of people over 10 years. After analyzing extensive date, the researchers concluded that people's happiness depends upon the happiness of others with whom they are connected, up to three degrees of separation. These findings are not surprising. Earlier studies on the effects of social networks found that obesity and smoking also spread in a similar fashion.

Loneliness vs. Depression

Just because you are lonely doesn't automatically mean you are depressed. Most of us feel lonely from time to time. And if you're depressed, you aren't necessarily lonely. However, lonely people have fewer relationships and spend more time by themselves. Since chronically lonely individuals are more likely to also be depressed, loneliness is both a mental health and a public health issue.

Loneliness is the feeling that you are not connected to others in meaningful ways. So even if you are surrounded by others, loneliness has more to do with the satisfaction you derive from your relationships than the frequency of contact with others.  Feeling lonely causes people to be on guard for social threats, which makes them engage in more self-protective behavior. Of course, this makes it more difficult to form friendships.

The Impact of Loneliness

The researchers in this current study suspect that loneliness is contagious because lonely people don't trust their connections and that fosters mistrust in others. They also found that:

  • It's easier to catch loneliness from your family than friends
  • Loneliness spreads more among women than men
  • It's more contagious among neighbors who live within a one-mile radius
  • Having one lonely friend makes you 40 to 65 percent more likely to be lonely

Because loneliness is linked to mental and other health problems, it's of particular concern with the elderly, who already face greater health risks. Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. It's important to note, however, that social disconnect is not related to poor mental health unless it brings about feelings of loneliness and isolation.