A year ago, nearly exactly to the date, researcher Nicholas Christakis and colleagues released a study demonstrating how our moods might be contagious within our social network (sorry, this research pertains primarily to traditional social networks; it’s not known whether it’s generalizable to online social networks).
Specifically, Christakis found that happiness is a little contagious within our small group of friends and family. That old study found that “when a person becomes happy, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy themselves. A spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance and for next-door neighbors, it’s 34 percent.” In other words, happiness can be a little contagious.
Today, we discover the logical extension of this earlier research — if happiness can be contagious, it stands to reason that other moods may also be, like loneliness. As the UK’s NHS reports on the new study, loneliness appears to spread throughout our social networks a little like a contagion:
The researchers say that their results indicate that loneliness occurs in clusters within social networks. They say it extends up to three degrees of separation from the FP, meaning that it can be seen in friends of friends of friends.
The idea that loneliness spreads like a contagion was based on the observation that, over time, scores of loneliness seemed to spread to the edge of a network. The spread of loneliness was found to be stronger than the spread of perceived social connections. It was stronger for friends than family members, and stronger for women than for men.
When the researchers drew the connections between people in their ‘cluster map’ those who reported feeling lonely appeared towards the edge of the network.
We tend to think of our emotions as these very personal, private, and individual feelings. That what I’m feeling right now is internal, and shared by no one close to me. What these studies suggest, as a whole, is that emotions are indeed influenced by outside factors, and are more likely to be shared by others within your social network — your friends, family and coworkers.
The researchers found that “people who are lonely tend to be linked to others who are lonely, an effect that is stronger for geographically proximal than distant friends yet extends up to three degrees of separation (friends’ friends’ friend) within the social network. The nature of the friendship matters, as well, in that nearby mutual friends show stronger effects than nearby ordinary friends.”
As the researchers note in the study, lonely people tend to get more lonely over time not because of social isolation, but because they spread the feelings of loneliness across their social network:
[N]on-lonely individuals who are around lonely individuals tend to grow lonelier over time. The[se…] results suggest that loneliness appears in social networks through the operation of induction (e.g., contagion) rather than simply arising from lonely individuals finding themselves isolated from others and choosing to become connected to other lonely individuals.
The researchers also found that loneliness, unlike happiness, spreads far more quickly amongst women than men. And that being lonely spreads more quickly amongst friends, rather than family.
The idea that loneliness, like happiness, has an important social component is valuable to forwarding our understanding of emotion. The feeling that for many feels the most individualistic and the most personal — of being alone in the world — seems to be ironically tied to our social networks and larger social forces. This also, however, suggests new interventions that may be more effective — targeting the loneliest people on the edge of their social networks and helping them repair their relationships with others.
Read the NHS article on the study: Is loneliness contagious?
Cacioppo JT, Fowler JH, Christakis NA. (In press). Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.