7 Ways Loneliness (and Connectedness) Affect Mental Health

Loneliness is finally starting to get at least some of the attention it deserves—we may not be as “on it” as other countries, like the U.K. with its Minister for Loneliness, but we’re getting there. Like the push to dissolve the stigma around mental health issues, there’s been a similar increase in people’s honesty about their social connection, or lack thereof. And it turns out that people are pretty lonely these days. The percentage of people saying they have few or no confidants has risen precipitously in recent years. So if you’re feeling lonely, you’re…well, not alone.

As the research shows just how important social connection is for our health and mental health, and how detrimental loneliness can be, the value of speaking out—and changing our habits—becomes all the more clear. Here are some of the ways in which loneliness hurts us and social connectivity helps us, psychologically and physiologically. 

Loneliness is contagious

A fascinating study looked at how loneliness is present in communities, and found that it spreads through a contagious process in which people seemed to “catch” loneliness from one another. As people became lonelier, they moved to the edges of social networks, creating a kind of domino effect. For instance, when one person reported an increase of one day per week of loneliness, his or her close friends also reported an increase. As the authors write, “efforts to reduce loneliness in society may benefit by aggressively targeting the people in the periphery to help repair their social networks and to create a protective barrier against loneliness that can keep the whole network from unraveling.”

Other work has shown that people who become lonelier over time also begin to trust others less, which creates a vicious cycle of loneliness and social isolation. These types of studies suggest that social connection is precarious, and vulnerable to different forces, making it all the more important to do what we can to keep our networks together and oneself involved.