A new study suggests that lonely people attract fellow "lonelies" and influence others to feel lonely, too.
"Loneliness can spread from person to person to person -- up to three degrees of separation," said James H. Fowler, co-author of the study published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
The study says that not only is loneliness contagious, but lonely people tend to isolate themselves in small groups that somehow compound or increase those feelings of solitude.
According to Fowler, the data suggests that the average person feels lonely about 48 days a year, but for the lonely, that feeling can be ever-present. In addition, the study indicated that people who felt lonely were more likely to be friendless, or constantly shedding friends, a few years later: Compared with those who are never lonely, lonely people can lose about 8 % of their friends over a four-year period, for instance.
The researchers worked with more than 5,100 participants.
The team constructed graphs tracking the participants' ongoing friendship patterns over two to four years. They found that, among neighbors, an increase of loneliness of just one day per week triggered a rise in loneliness among neighbor-friends, as well. And that loneliness actually spread throughout the community as affected neighbors saw each other less, the researchers said.
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.
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.
U.S. News and World Report has contributed to the report.