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.

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2 thoughts on “Loneliness Spreads like a Virus

  1. As Salaamu Alaikum Dear:

    The article said, in part, “people likely catch the loneliness bug through negative interactions.”

    I think this is so true! I have had so many negative interactions with Muslim women, that sometimes I seek out my “old” friends just to maintain my sanity. Many of my “old” (non Muslims) friends are good people, and they know me at a very deep level for a number of years. I often find myself missing them.

    My Muslim community is mainly Pakistani and a few Arabs. There is only one other American sister. One would think that Islam would create the most important bond. But, sadly, this is not often so. Our sisterhood is sorely lacking and not supportive for some of us.

    I have a nice quote by Grace Paley that I think sums it up:

    “For happiness she required women to walk with. To walk in the city arm in arm with a woman friend (as her mother had with aunts and cousins so many years ago) was just plain essential.”

    It is more beautiful in Spanish:

    “Para ser feliz ella necesitaba mujeres con quienes salir a caminar. Caminar por la ciudad del brazo de una amiga (como tantos anos atras lo habia hecho su madre con sus tias y primas) era simple y llanamente esencial.”

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  2. Walaikum salaam dear Safiyyah,
    Maintaining those old ties is important, they are your roots. But as we grow in Islam, it is important to branch out, reach out. Sometimes it feels like we are more like deciduous trees, those branches can be bare sometimes especially in these long cold winters. But having those roots and a solid core, we can make it through those lonely times. I hope one day that those ethnic divides will decrease. Many of my long standing Muslim friends are from immigrant families, we just tend to lose touch because of the demands of being a wife, mother, daughter, and being members of particular ethnic communities.

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