I like to scan news sites on my lunch hour to see how the world is doing. One headline that caught my eye this week dealt with loneliness being contagious. This article cited a new study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This ten year longitudinal study, which included 5000 people, found those of us who are lonely tend to pass this quality on to friends and family members as we move farther and farther to the edges of social life. The process is not quite like giving a cold to someone else but it is very similar. As the journey occurs from the center of social life to the lonely fringe, we shed relationships like too many warm clothes. By the time we arrive at our destination, we are alone or nearly so and those we’ve been in contact with experience their own journey into the solitary wasteland.
This appears to be one of those chicken and egg quandaries. Are we lonely because we’re negative or are we negative because we’re lonely? Both answers appear to have merit. Loneliness is correlated with social isolation, anxiety, shyness, low self-efficacy regarding social skills, and increased defensiveness and suspiciousness. As we move through life as a lonely person we become more and more convinced that this intimate connection is something that we cannot ever hope to obtain. As this conviction increases our social contact decreases. Loneliness is more than a social emptiness; it also has physical manifestations including stress reactions, high blood pressure, and compromised immunity. As our society moves into more virtual connections this appears to be an increasingly difficult assignment. Another longitudinal study, conducted by George Vaillant, also looked at the implications of social relationships over the lifespan. One of Vaillant’s conclusions was “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.” In McCartney and Lennon language “All You Need is Love”.
As we head into the holiday season, this loneliness can come into sharper focus for ourselves and our clients. As we watch happy families scurrying home with the Christmas tree tied to the roof of the car, and the endless commercials and shows on television showing perfect happy people, in beautiful homes, with loving friends and family, sharing wonderful meals with glittering ornaments and expensive gifts, it is easy to forget the person on the edge of the social circle. The person who may not have the family to share with, or the friends to exchange gifts with, because they feel they don’t know how to begin to make such friendships or have been so hurt by prior relationships that they’ve given up hope, or believe they are not worthy of this wonderful gift.
I have had numerous clients and students confess to me over the years that they were lonely and simply didn’t know where or how to begin to change this. One of my beliefs about the counseling process is that the therapeutic relationship has the capacity to revive a person’s hope that they are worthy and deserving of filling that need. As this hope revives, the therapeutic alliance can teach the basic positive skills needed to reach out to others. When clients can report that they’ve followed through on the homework of smiling at someone or saying hello and then are able to share the joy of a new friendship, I give thanks. I feel thankful to be part of a profession that values these necessities of life.
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.