When I decided to become a work-at-home-mom (WAHM) after moving to a strange country, little did I know that the word “loneliness” would take on a new dimension for me. I am not exactly a social butterfly, but the utter isolation of a home office was too much for me. My friends were so far away, my kids at the kindergarten, my husband at the office. There were no colleagues to talk to or even just to bicker with. I became depressed, lost appetite and weight, and couldn’t sleep. That was 3 years ago. Since then I have made new friends and joined some clubs and organizations and gone out regularly. But I have learned how hard social isolation can be – on the mind as well as on the body. No wonder that solitary confinement is used as a punishment for serious misdemeanors in prisons. Yet, one can be lonely even in a crowd of people.
What are the health effects of loneliness?
In recent years, research studies have been conducted to explore the causes of loneliness and how it affects health. Here are some of the findings:
- Lonely people tend to have higher blood pressure and weaker immune systems.
- Loneliness affects our genes…i.e. genes that promote inflammation are more active, while genes that reduce inflammation are less active.
- Being lonely once in a while is fine; chronic loneliness, however, is bad.
- Lonely people become depressed, not the other way around.
How does social network affect loneliness?
The current trend of social networking has good and bad effects on loneliness.
In a USA Today report, a cancer survivor got a lot of support through social media to over her depression. According to breast cancer survivor Jody Schoger:
“If any survivor posts something onto Twitter or Facebook that they’re ‘having a hard day,’ I can bet you 10 to 1 that he or she is surrounded by good wishes by day’s end. Yet the survivor, the one who is ill, has to be willing to take that step. Once he or she does, the burden of illness and its perceived isolation fades away.”
However, loneliness is contagious and it can also spread through social networking. There was the case of the so-called suicide pact among lonely young people only connected through the Internet a few years ago.
Dr. John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago conducted several studies on loneliness and summarized his results as follows:
- Contrary to the popular wisdom that if you’re depressed, you get lonely, … if you are lonely, you get depressed. Although that finding was first published in 2006, he says a second follow-up study that has been accepted for publication provides more evidence that loneliness leads to depression, not vice versa.
- Marriage benefits your health, but only if you aren’t lonely in your marriage. If marriage reduces your loneliness, it will be beneficial to your health.
- There is a basic, human need to connect and when those efforts are frustrated, “we connect artificially” by befriending non-humans. Cacioppo says a set of studies over the past five years has shown that can’t replace human friendships, though.
- Loneliness may be contagious, similar to the way happiness has been shown to be contagious, according to yet unpublished research.
- Loneliness comes down to quality, rather than quantity of friendships.