"All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" the Beatles sang in "Eleanor Rigby." Well, now researchers know: Loneliness is contagious, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and can spread from person to person. Just as researchers have previously shown that happy people can make others feel exuberant, so, too, can lonely people make others feel desolate.
And this loneliness network can extend up to three degrees of separation. As the study authors write, "A person's loneliness depends not just on his friend's loneliness but also extends to his friend's friend and his friend's friend's friend." You might think: If someone has friends, how can she be lonely? But, speaking from experience, friends may talk about how "out of the loop" and disconnected they feel—even while they're conversing with each other. That sort of conversation can leave both people feeling down.
It can be worse for older folks, who often cut many of their social ties when they head into retirement and their kids move away. And this can have negative health consequences, according to a slew of previous studies. In young adulthood, the stress that comes with perceived social isolation can raise blood pressure and cholesterol, speed the aging process, and cause the body to accumulate dangerous fat around the abdomen. In a person's senior years, this same isolation can lead to a progression of Alzheimer's disease, less independent living, clogged arteries, and even death.
Aging, though, doesn't have to equal loneliness, says Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. In her previous studies, Carstensen has shown that elderly folks experience fewer negative emotions than younger people on a daily basis. She tells me that older people tend to focus more on positive images and messages in everyday life and tend to resolve interpersonal problems more effectively. "As we sense the clock winding down, we become increasingly concerned about what's important, what matters, savoring the time we have left," she explains. "We don't want to waste time on negative, trivial, insignificant things." (Political candidates take note: Older voters respond more to positive campaign ads focusing on a candidate's strengths rather than negative ads pointing out the opposition's weaknesses.)
"You can expect to have fewer—but deeper—connections in old age," Cartensen writes in her new book, A Long Bright Future. She points out that these few strong bonds can be enough to keep you from feeling lonely. (In fact, researchers have shown that folks who report feeling lonely have nearly as many friends as those who don't; they just don't feel able to make strong emotional connections.)
Here are four tips from Cartensen for ensuring your own "long bright future."
1. Nourish your social relationships. Learn to let go of grudges, she says, and nourish relationships with siblings and cousins your own age; they're most likely to stay with you through time and can remind you of your younger self. But don't confine yourself to your own age group. Look for younger friends as well—yes, children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren count—so you don't run the risk of being the last (and loneliest) woman standing.
2. Work longer. You can stay socially connected by remaining in the workforce as long as possible. Plus, it infuses your life with meaning. Many folks, though, find they need a change of pace in their 50s or beyond. Encore Careers is a nonprofit venture that helps people close to retirement age turn to new careers in the public service, going from, say, a high-powered litigator to working in public interest law or from an advertising executive to a high school principal.
3. Learn throughout your life. While taking formal education classes at a local community college can help improve your social connections and keep your mind stimulated, you can educate yourself in less structured ways. "Start a garden, try out for a local community theater's play, buy a field guide and hit the hiking trail," preferably with a friend, Cartensen writes. Book clubs, lecture series, and group guitar lessons are others ways to expand your mind and your feelings of connectedness.
4. Take care of your body. Exercise is the best antiaging elixir there is, and it's also a great way to make friends. Mall-walking groups are everywhere nowadays, and swing dancing has come back into fashion. Heck, even the neighborhood gym is a social gathering place. Seniors often comprise the biggest group of exercisers at suburban workout facilities, especially in the late morning and early afternoon.