Here’s an Op-Ed I wrote with my husband in Friday’s Washington Post:
University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo and his colleagues, using the nationalHealth and Retirement Study and other data, have documented the heavy burden that social isolation and, in particular, loneliness place on individuals. Loneliness increases one’s risk of depression, and Cacioppo and his colleagues have noted that it affects physical outcomes such as blood pressure, cholesterol level and the risk of early death. When people feel socially isolated, they increase their vigilance for threats and feel more vulnerable. Sometimes they even become paranoid. There is some evidence, from a 2005 paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry, that social isolation is a risk factor for the development of schizophrenia.
We can’t know what went on in Alexis’s mind. Not all people who are alone feel lonely, of course, and extremely few go on killing rampages. But it is worth paying attention because social isolation harms not just those directly affected but also the majority who are not isolated.
Research we have conducted with political scientist and geneticist James Fowlerfound that a person’s sense of loneliness depends on how those in his social network are feeling. You are about 52 percent more likely to be lonely if a person to whom you are directly connected is lonely. But there is an even more extraordinary pattern at the edge of social networks. On the periphery, people have fewer friends; this makes them lonely, and it paradoxically drives them to cut their few remaining ties. But before they do, they may “infect” their friends with the same feeling of loneliness, starting the cycle anew. These reinforcing effects mean that our social fabric can fray at the edges, where it is weakest, like a yarn that comes loose at the end of a sweater.
To combat loneliness in our society, we should aggressively target the people on the periphery with interventions to repair their social networks. Even better would be to prevent some of these individuals from ever becoming socially isolated. Society’s many options to reduce risks of social isolation include targeting not just veterans suffering from stress disorders but also broader groups, such as young people who feel alienated, or bullied or the unemployed who feel unwanted. By helping those at risk of social isolation, we can protect our social fabric from unraveling.