Loneliness Spreads like a Virus

A recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offers something to think about. Loneliness spreads like a virus, as the study suggests, and it is not a personality trait. Instead, it is a condition like hunger. We human beings are naturally social and we crave human interaction. I think this is important to think about because whether we like to talk about it or not, many Muslim women are depressed. Much of it is due to social isolation. And I don’t mean just from purdah (secluding oneself in the home), but isolation as part of the modern condition where mass migration and high mobility separate us from friends and family. I have talked to a number of women, from new mothers, to newlyweds, to ex-pats, and immigrants, and a number of women I know, including myself, have experienced debilitating loneliness. How to combat loneliness? That is a hard thing, especially because it leaves you vulnerable and especially sensitive to social slights. The article states:

While a runny nose might spread through handshakes, people likely catch the loneliness bug through negative interactions. A lonely person will be less trusting of others, essentially “making a mountain out of a molehill,” said study researcher John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. An odd look or phrasing by a friend that wouldn’t even be noticed by a chipper person could be seen as an affront to the lonely, triggering a cycle of negative interactions that cause people to lose friends.

When you’re down in the dumps, it is much harder to make new friends or repair old ties. I don’t think it is just the lonely person’s fault. Sometimes people can act like vultures and prey on the weak or wounded. It is easy to take a pot shot at someone who is already down. In fact, some people can be downright mean as they see emotions as a sign of vulnerability. The trick for a lonely person is to reach out, slowly build real relationships where both parties earn each other’s trust. Another downfall of loneliness and negativity is that you can attract other people who are also angry and negative. Misery loves company. And as the study suggests, if you are around a lonely person that bug may catch you too. Maybe you can find activities to be around people doing something positive, instead of talking and commiserating. The most important lesson I walked away from after reading the article is that we should work hard as a community to reach out to people who are on the outskirts. We can’t just let people drift away, instead we should help them repair old social ties and create new ones. We all need circles of friends and associates for support. Living abroad and relocating several times has really brought that point to bear for me. We have to think about addressing these issues on a personal level and a community level. We’re all busy, but our modern lives and technology have created more communication but greater social isolation. We can all use a bit more face to face interactions and authentic relationships. Creating companionship is just hard work, but for our own emotional, psychological, and physical health we should work on it. Read more here.