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The Irony of Loneliness
January 1, 2010 2:25 PM   Subscribe

The Economist reports on a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (abstract) about how loneliness moves through a community.

Loneliness can spread from an individual through his or her social network. The effect is more pronounced with friends and acquaintances than with family. It seems that when one feels lonely "he [sic] is more likely to interact with his friends negatively, and they are then more likely to interact with other friends negatively." So, being lonely seems to make us behave in ways that not only tends to increase our feelings of isolation, but also increases the isolation of members of our social network.
posted by djfiander (30 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
(your economist link was empty, I did a search there and grabbed what I think was the correct article)
posted by mathowie at 2:29 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Shit. Thanks. That's the right one.
posted by djfiander at 2:30 PM on January 1, 2010


I read an interview with Leonard Cohen about 10 or 15 years ago where the Q&A went something like this:

"I know you had some severe problems with depression. Now you say you're fine. What happened?"

"It moved onto someone else."
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 2:43 PM on January 1, 2010 [16 favorites]


Sigh. Lonely.

^
|
|

"Ahhhh! Get it away, get it away!"
posted by limeonaire at 2:52 PM on January 1, 2010


Should that be Incongruousness, rather than Irony?
posted by memebake at 2:56 PM on January 1, 2010


Between 1983 and 2001, even more useful information was collected when participants were regularly asked to state how many days a week they felt certain feelings.

There's been significant advances in communication since the study was done. While all the underpinnings of modern online communities were established by 2001, probably even by the mid-90s, it did not have nearly the critical mass as it does today.

I say this as someone who has had to travel for long stretches at a time, I've never felt lonely or out of touch. Sure there is something to be said for physical interaction with people, but SMS, e-mail, twitter and facebook feeds make me feel much, much more socially active than I am.

I suppose this is probably in large part of their popularity even though the intrinsic value of something like a Twitter page or status update is so low: it satisfies loneliness and keeps us socially active, even if it is a largely passive interaction.
posted by geoff. at 3:04 PM on January 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


It sounds like the best kind of prevention is to shun lonely people... OH CRUEL IRONY etc
posted by Spacelegoman at 3:04 PM on January 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


How many more these Framingham Network effect studies are we going to have to read press releases about? I suspect that these studies themselves are displaying a network effect.
posted by srboisvert at 3:16 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The team of researchers is starting to look at other towns and cities, to see if there are any public policies or city-planning techniques that thwart the spread of loneliness. No solutions have been discovered so far"

How about not planning cities around cars?

It seems to me that the model of dormitory suburbs with large houses on large blocks, whereby people live in a kind of cocoon from house to car to work to shopping mall, often without even knowing their neighbours, is a surefire recipe for social isolation.

This is in contrast with my perceptions from travelling in developing countries, where people tend to live in much higher density housing, and can't help but have a lot of social interaction with their neighbours & nearby community.

Obviously, this involves a tradeoff between space & privacy on the one hand, and community on the other. But it seems a bit disingenuous to me if people want to live in extreme privacy, and then complain of loneliness.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:30 PM on January 1, 2010 [7 favorites]


This pissed me off so much when I read it. I mean, what bastards! Giving the happy people yet another reason to shun the poor lonely people.

And the happiness income equality gap grows and grows.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:47 PM on January 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


How about not planning cities around cars?

It seems to me that the model of dormitory suburbs with large houses on large blocks, whereby people live in a kind of cocoon from house to car to work to shopping mall, often without even knowing their neighbours, is a surefire recipe for social isolation.


It's not just planning for cars that is the problem. City blocks planned and built prior to the dominance of the car sustained strong communities with normally strong links between people lasting up to several decades. But there was a study done in the 1970s that linked the busyness of car traffic on a street with the number of social connections the average person has on that street. It's no surprise that streets that became busy with car traffic tended to be socially disintegrated. The introduction of cars has slowly eroded connections with neighbors.

I'm happy to blame the car for one more social ill.
posted by Sova at 4:08 PM on January 1, 2010 [10 favorites]


SMS, e-mail, twitter and facebook feeds make me feel much, much more socially active than I am.

That's interesting, as these things sometimes make me feel more isolated, when I see Twitter messages/Facebook posts about social things other people are doing, it can enhance my loneliness, because I'm not there!
posted by adamdschneider at 4:56 PM on January 1, 2010


When I lived in LA, I was pretty lonely, and I felt that it was an effect of the city's culture. I knew a few people, almost all of them friends from home who had moved there, but it was extremely hard to meet new people, because everyone was in these home-car-work cocoons and rejected any interaction with strangers.

When I lived in Seattle, even though I knew fewer people to start with, I didn't have nearly that same feeling, because people in Seattle were willing to interact with people they didn't know.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 4:58 PM on January 1, 2010


If a diagnosis of "lonely" is based on who checks a box on a survey which says so, I have to question to what extent it's actual loneliness that is spread or merely the ability to identify the feeling.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:05 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


"precious little is known about how loneliness moves through communities" ...right
posted by larry_darrell at 6:12 PM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


So at last, one of the questions posed by The Beatles in "Eleanor Rigby" has a definitive answer.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:10 PM on January 1, 2010


When I lived in LA, I was pretty lonely, and I felt that it was an effect of the city's culture.
(...)
because everyone was in these home-car-work cocoons and rejected any interaction with strangers.

that's such a cliched view of the city. you just need a way in, a connection. your point seems to be that social life in LA doesn't exist when it merely works differently. people don't exactly talk to each other on mass transit either - they rarely even make eye contact.

I did not feel lonelier than elsewhere while living in LA. then again, I can feel lonely whether in a relationship or single, so not even direct contact seems to make a difference automatically.
posted by krautland at 9:45 PM on January 1, 2010


Bearing in mind what krautland says, Jimmy Havok's comment is how I felt about Auckland (car-orientated) vs Wellington (more public transport and pedestrian-orientated). But I didn't feel that it was the willingness to interact. Rather, when you live in a dispersed city and you have to drive everywhere, and there's no real centre, it puts grit in the wheels of spontaneous social events. If you're going to drink, it's hard to get home, you have to agree where to meet, figure out how to get there, take traffic patterns into account, maybe lose 90 minutes just getting to an event and back... it's painful.

Wellington is a very compact city with a dense centre so there's an obvious choice of where to meet, it's easy to get there and back without a car, and very probably your social circle largely works/studies/whatever in the centre and will be there during the day and early evening anyway. So if someone says "let's go get a drink after work" or "wanna stay and see a movie?" or whatever it's easy. When I lived in Auckland everything seemed like such a mission I passed on a lot of things I probably would have done in Wellington, and I felt like there was a lot more work and planning involved.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:15 PM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


that's such a cliched view of [LA]

I spent 9 months living there before I was too sick of it to stay. On the other hand, I spent two winters in Seattle, and made a lot more friends in that time.

I used to enjoy doing laundry in LA, because it seemed like the laundromat was the only place where people would chat with a random stranger.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:04 AM on January 2, 2010


Without having bought the whole paper, this seems a bit unconvincing. Lots of things might make the spread of loneliness look like contagion. Groups of friends tend to be the same age, have interests in common, etc, so they pass through similar life experiences at about the same time and are affected by similar external factors.

Hard to get over the inherent implausibility of the proposition that lack of human contact is spread by - human contact. The idea that people react negatively to loneliness, discouraging social contact so that things get even worse, seems at odds with common sense and common experience. If it were so it seems loneliness would almost always be an unstoppable spiral into misanthropic hermithood; but mild and temporary loneliness is surely the most common kind? I would have guessed that severe loneliness is normally caused by identifiable isolating factors (you're old and most of your friends have died or aren't mobile; you're divorced and most of your social circle went with your ex; you've moved hundreds of miles away from your old town; you've developed an addictive habit which cuts you off from old friends), not just a self-generating thing.
posted by Phanx at 3:24 AM on January 2, 2010


This post reminded me of Bowling Alone, which I haven't read, but which many sociologists I know tend to rave about.
posted by carmen at 6:21 AM on January 2, 2010


Phanx, from my reading of the Economist article (which magazine seems to be very good at getting this sort of thing right), one of the effects of feeling lonely and isolated (regardless of whether you are or not) is to feel that you are not getting support from your friends and as a result of that withdrawing from this. So, when one feels lonely, one withdraws, or treats friends in a negative way, which is what causes the feeling to spread: your friends feel you withdraw and become lonely as a result.
posted by djfiander at 6:55 AM on January 2, 2010


I used to enjoy doing laundry in LA, because it seemed like the laundromat was the only place where people would chat with a random stranger.

I really would like to smell your odor now. or see a picture. the laundromat? seriously? I spent nearly six years in LA and I got chatted up in bars, supermarket checkout lanes, the public library, at the getty, met people on the beach and chatted a then-future girlfriend up at staples of all places. I got taken to parties, where I met people who took me to other places. college friends took me along to shows, of which there seemed to be at least five on any given night, and I got odd jobs in the film industry that had me meet the oddest people on all sorts of locations. my fb has more friends from LA than from any other city I lived in (those would include NYC, ORD, LON, HAM and a few smaller ones). norman klein wrote that LA was a city where everything happened behind fences and walls. that is true. you need to find a way in, you need to know someone who points you into a direction. but you can meet that person at starbucks. you might run into someone at kinkos. the issue isn't LA, the issue is you. people respond when you smile and approach them openly and with curiosity. if you really don't know absolutely anyone in the whole city and are too shy to chat with people while waiting to pay in a supermarket you could go onto meetup.com and sign up for a group or two. try a wine tasting or a yoga group and you'll meet tons of women who I always find are way more tuned into what else might be worth checking out than men. say yes more often, no matter where you are. just say yes, smile and jump into the water and you'll see what I mean.

I spent 9 months living there before I was too sick of it to stay.
something else I just cannot understand. it's 80F and sunny, forchrissakes. people looooved to complain about the weather (as they do everywhere) but if you grew up in a climate much like boston or seattle it's fucking brilliant. I had a sunburn in february and couldn't have loved it more.

i_am_joe's_spleen: yes, everything in LA is 45 minutes away, that's the old line. but taking the F-train in NYC from brooklyn to midtown takes just as long. things do happen earlier in LA but people carpool. they meet up, they start having a good time already while driving there together, they enjoy the show and the designated driver drives home (that would be the ideal situation). it's not like there is less social life in LA, it's just different.
posted by krautland at 6:04 PM on January 2, 2010


Full paper: Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network
posted by jefe303 at 6:40 PM on January 2, 2010


krautland, I know it's traditional for people who've lived in L.A. (especially on MeFi) to get pissy when people slag the city, but your attitude is infuriating. Yes, shy people, it is your fault if you don't meet just everyone under the sun just by standing there. Luck and temperament play a huge role in things like this, neither of which are really under the control of people. You had a good experience. Good for you. Stop denigrating people who don't, for whatever reason, have as much luck with people.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:44 PM on January 2, 2010


it's traditional for people who've lived in L.A. (especially on MeFi) to get pissy when people slag the city
I don't think that's true at all. it's tradition for anyone living or having lived in LA to hate the city. they all complain about traffic, smog, property taxes and the social life. that's the cliche. I always feel like I'm the only one who actually liked the place.

I am not trying to denigrate anyone, you seem to have not understood my point. what I was trying to say is give this city (as well as any other city) a chance. I tried to provide pointers as to how someone might go about getting a start. I was trying to show it's possible to have a good time there. I'm german, for chrissakes, it's not like I'm exactly from the most social and networky society myself. a little less attitude and a little more hopefulness on your part and you might have gotten that.
posted by krautland at 10:54 AM on January 3, 2010


Perhaps that's not what you intended, but the way it came across you both seem to be missing the larger point. Jimmy Havok is blaming everything on the city, you're blaming everything on Jimmy Havok's attitude. I haven't noticed that any other place is particularly open and welcoming, so I doubt the problem is with L.A. specifically.

On the other hand, your advice (except the meetup.com advice, which is good) doesn't amount to much. Chat people up in a supermarket checkout lane? Seriously? I don't want to talk to anyone in a checkout lane, I want to buy my groceries. I doubt most people are any different.

In my opinion, you're both focusing on a single factor that is vastly overshadowed by a number of other things. How attractive are you? I have never been approached by a strange woman and chatted up. Do you speak English with an accent? I know several people who will very often initiate conversation with someone who speaks with an accent ("Where are you from," etc.) who simply do not do that to someone who speaks in unaccented American English. Some people have no problem socializing if put into a social environment, but are unable to really break past that to turn it into other social opportunities and friendships, and it's often not entirely clear why, especially to them. There are an enormous number of factors at play, and frankly I think the biggest is luck. Right place, right time, right people.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:19 PM on January 3, 2010


the issue isn't LA, the issue is you. people respond when you smile and approach them openly and with curiosity.

Funny, I guess I must have been a different person in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Austin, Tokyo, Juneau...

My life wasn't totally bereft in LA, but the typical social interaction there was an empty stare, as if to say "Why do you even exist?" and I wasn't the only person to comment on that.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:36 PM on January 3, 2010


things do happen earlier in LA

No shit things happen earlier in LA. I don't know about now, but the bars gave last call at 1am and you were out the door before 2am. The headline band would play at 9. The bands didn't seem interested in anything except whether there were A&R guys in the house, and the A&R guys were too old to stay out late. After a while I found a couple of underground clubs that stayed open until god knows when, much better.

but people carpool. they meet up, they start having a good time already while driving there together, they enjoy the show and the designated driver drives home

You must live in some weird parallel universe LA. I never once encountered anyone carpooling, because everyone lived so far from each other.

I admit, I do like Venice Beach, that's where I spent my last few months in LA, but it was already starting to fill up with typical LA assholes due to gentrification, and the coolth of Venice didn't make up for the overall LA culture.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:49 PM on January 3, 2010


I'm stating that it doesn't have to be a certain way and that it's unfair and unoriginal to just repeat the oldest of the stereotypes about LA. that's a preconceived notion, a choice, an attitude problem.

I don't want to talk to anyone in a checkout lane
the point was that you do meet people in many places even in LA and that it's not as isolated as it was made out to be. you could talk to people anywhere. it's your choice not to but hey, that would explain a couple of things...

I have never been approached by a strange woman and chatted up.
really? wow.

Do you speak English with an accent?
no, not really.

it's often not entirely clear why, especially to them.
right. so do it often and do it without trying. just be nice and things will happen. I'm surprised this sounds so difficult to you.

You must live in some weird parallel universe LA. I never once encountered anyone carpooling, because everyone lived so far from each other.
that actually was pretty common for us back there. but hey, perhaps you really do live in a parallel universe la, too. you know, one where everyone lived aaaaaages away from each other.
posted by krautland at 3:17 PM on January 3, 2010


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