Jul 16th 2018

Loneliness is contagious – and here’s how to beat it

 

Loneliness is a common condition affecting around one in three adults. It damages your brain, immune system, and can lead to depression and suicide. Loneliness can also increase your risk of dying prematurely as much as smoking can – and even more so than obesity. If you feel lonely, you tend to feel more stressed in situations that others cope better in, and even though you might get sufficient sleep, you don’t feel rested during the day.

Loneliness has also increased over the past few decades. Compared to the 1980s, the number of people living alone in the US has increased by about one-third. When Americans were asked about the number of people that they can confide in, the number dropped from three in 1985 to two in 2004.

In the UK, 21% to 31% of people report that they feel lonely some of the time, and surveys in other parts of the world report similarly high estimates. And it’s not just adults who feel lonely. Over a tenth of kindergarteners and first graders report feeling lonely in the school environment.

So many people feel lonely these days. But loneliness is a tricky condition, because it doesn’t necessarily refer to the number of people you talk to or the number of acquaintances you have. You can have many people around you and still feel lonely. As the comedian Robin Williams put it in the film World’s Greatest Dad:

I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness refers to the discrepancy between the number and quality of the relationships that you desire and those you actually have. You can have only two friends, but if you get along really well with them and feel that they meet your needs, you’re not lonely. Or you can be in a crowd and feel all alone.

But loneliness is not just about how you feel. Being in this state can make you behave differently, too, because you have less control over yourself – for example, you’re more likely to eat that chocolate cake for lunch instead of a meal or order take-out for dinner and you will also feel less motivated to exercise, which is important for mental and physical health. You’re also more likely to act aggressively towards others.

Sometimes people think that the only way out of loneliness is to simply talk to a few more people. But while that can help, loneliness is less about the number of contacts that you make and more about how you see the world. When you become lonely, you start to act and see the world differently. You begin noticing the threats in your environment more readily, you expect to be rejected more often, and become more judgemental of the people you interact with. People that you talk to can feel this, and as a result, start moving away from you, which perpetuates your loneliness cycle.

Studies have shown that (non-lonely) people who hang out with lonely people are more likely to become lonely themselves. So loneliness is contagious, just as happiness is – when you hang out with happy people, you are more likely to become happy.

There is also a loneliness gene that can be passed down and, while inheriting this gene doesn’t mean you will end up alone, it does affect how distressed you feel from social disconnection. If you have this gene, you are more likely to feel the pain of not having the kinds of relationships that you want.

It’s particularly bad news for men. Loneliness more often results in death for men than for women. Lonely men are also less resilient and tend to be more depressed than lonely women. This is because men are typically discouraged from expressing their emotions in society and if they do they are judged harshly for it. As such, they might not even admit it to themselves that they’re feeling lonely and tend to wait a long time before seeking help. This can have serious consequences for their mental health.

How to escape it

To overcome loneliness and improve our mental health, there are certain things we can do. Research has looked at the different ways of combating this condition, such as increasing the number of people you talk to, improving your social skills, and learning how to compliment others. But it seems the number one thing is to change your perceptions of the world around you.

It’s realising that sometimes people aren’t able to meet up with you, not because there is something inherently wrong with you, but because of other things going on in their lives. Maybe the person that you wanted to have dinner with wasn’t able to accept your invitation because it was too short notice for them and they had already promised someone else they would have drinks. People who aren’t lonely realise this and, as a consequence, don’t get down or start beating themselves up when someone says no to their invitations. When you don’t attribute “failures” to yourself, but rather to circumstances, you become much more resilient in life and can keep going.

Getting rid of loneliness is also about letting go of cynicism and mistrust of others. So next time you meet someone new, try to lose that protective shield and really allow them in, even though you don’t know what the outcome will be.

 

Olivia Remes, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.