A happy person can light up a room. An angry person can rile others around her. A sad person can stop a conversation cold. And now we know that loneliness can be contagious, too.
A federal study has found that a lonely person’s feelings can be spread – not only to friends and family they are in direct contact with, but also to people those friends or family touch. It spreads almost like a flu or cold virus.
"Loneliness can be transmitted," John T. Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who led the study, told the Washington Post. "Loneliness is not just the property of an individual. It can be transmitted across people – even people you don't have direct contact with.
"We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely," he told the Reuters News Service.
Before losing their friends, lonely people transmit feelings of loneliness 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.
"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," Cacioppo added.
The study is being published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Because loneliness is associated with mental and physical diseases that can shorten life, Cacioppo told Reuters it is important for people to recognize loneliness and help those affected before they move away to the edges.
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"No man is an island," said Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School who helped conduct the research. "Something so personal as a person's emotions can have a collective existence and affect the vast fabric of humanity."
So why is this important?
Because feelings of isolation or loneliness have been linked to other medical issues such as depression, sleep problems and overall poor health.