Women appeared more vulnerable than men to "catching" loneliness, the researchers found.
Mark R. Leary, professor and director of the social psychology program at Duke University, whose work zeroes in on the need for social acceptance, called the study impressive in its sample, analysis and conclusion. He added that the contagion of loneliness could be, to some degree, a situation of people mimicking the styles of those around them.
"Non-lonely people who are exposed to lonely people may make others in their network a little more lonely by behaving in these less-affirming ways. Perhaps this is why the effect of loneliness can be seen at three degrees of separation. My friend has a lonely friend, so my friend starts acting less affirming overall, which makes me act a little less positively, which then affects my other friends."
So what can be done to help the lonely, to integrate them better with others? Leary suggested that those who interact with lonely people recognize that their tendency to pull inward emotionally and be less outgoing is a trait of loneliness, not of something else. "It reflects loneliness and a need for connection, rather than indifference, dislike or rejection. People can reach out to their lonely loved one rather than withdraw themselves," he said.
Fowler agreed. "For the mental health provider, this means treating not just the patient, but potentially also the patient's friends," he said. "For the employer, this means emphasizing activities that help their employees to connect to one another socially. For the family member, this means you should tend to your own networks, too, while you help your kin feel more connected."
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