Friday, December 18, 2009

Tim Anderson, "Re: Loneliness Can Be Contagious"

Loneliness can be contagious
Study finds solitary feeling affects friends, family
Rob Stein, Canwest News Service | Vancouver Sun, December 2, 2009

Loneliness is like a disease – and what's worse, it's contagious.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, loneliness can spread from one person to another, according to research released Tuesday that underscores the power of one person's emotions to affect friends, family and neighbours.

The federally funded analysis of data collected from more than 4,000 people over 10 years found that lonely people increase the chances that someone they know will start to feel alone, and that the solitary feeling can spread one more degree of separation, causing a friend of a friend or even the sibling of a friend to feel desolate.

The new analysis, involving 4,793 people who were interviewed every two years between 1991 and 2001, showed that having a social connection to a lonely person increased the chances of developing feelings of loneliness. A friend of a lonely person was 52 per cent more likely to develop feelings of loneliness by the time of the next interview, the analysis showed.

"No man is an island," said Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School who helped conduct the research. "Something so personal as a person's emotions can have a collective existence and affect the vast fabric of humanity." Previous studies by Christakis concluded that obesity, the likelihood of quitting smoking, and even happiness could spread from one person to another.


Dear Newspaper Editor,

I read with interest your recent article "Loneliness Can Be Contagious," an article especially important to understand as we move into the holiday season.

It really is illogical that our cities are full of lonely people. One person in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean ought to feel lonely. But to have lonely people cheek to jowl on the bus, morosely staring past each other, stacked up like cordwood in apartment buildings yet not knowing each other's names - it's just weird.

But the notion that loneliness is a virus, that it is transmitted, that misery radiates out and grows within - that's brilliant. And it occurs to me then that we ought to name a Patient Zero - the first transmitter of the feeling. My epidemiology on this is perhaps not scientifically airtight (hey, I'm busy) but my nominee is the founder of cities himself, and first documented murderer, Cain. You see, after Cain murdered his brother and best friend Abel, he wandered the deserts of loneliness and needed a project to get his mind off his troubled family history, existential emptiness and bad tattoo (thanks, God!), and most especially the bad blood that stained his hands. So he invented cities, where he stayed up late working under artificial light, brushed by strangers brusquely on his way to the coffee shop, got into bar fights. Loved by no one, weighed down, sleepless and fever-sick, a man without rest, surely he was the original Mr. Lonely.

It's been spreading in cities since then, that amalgam of anonymity and painful self-awareness we call loneliness. It's a virus that sweeps the land, re-infecting masses year after year, peaking at Christmas. And we know it - the Christmas news broadcasts always lead with the feeding of the lonely, bringing them in from the cold.

And that is the double irony, the Christmas angle. You see, I've always assumed that people got more lonely at Christmas because of the contrast between their dingy little interior worlds and the brown-sugar-love of the happy people all aglow with light from the cuddly Baby Jesus. But if loneliness is in the blood, if it shakes the soul with the chills of a fever, then there is something else going on - some kind of antibody reaction.

Against this realization I lay the notion that has been working on me for a while, that Jesus himself was not a cuddly flannel-graph character, but another sort of Mr. Lonely. Not sure? Let's review: His life starts as a bad hotel experience. His dad isn't really his dad. After being stalked by astronomy nerds, the spreading news of his birth and resulting threat of death requires his family to head back down into Egypt. Yes, Egypt, that campground of oppression that had already cost the family hundreds of years! Then, like a lot of bright kids, he's misunderstood by his parents, even to the point that as an adult that want to lock him up for insanity. His friends never really get it. Later, at his supposed moment of triumph when the crowds are all cheering him on his entry to the Big City (nota bene!) what does he feel? His only words are muttered through tears, that no one really understands what he is about, that he wanted to be close to them, but they wouldn't let him. Then, as you remember, on the outskirts of the city, late at night, when it is all weighing down and he's sick with it, sweating blood, his friends would rather sleep than understand. He can hardly bear it. Then things get even worse.

It seems to me that Jesus, the "reason for the season," really had loneliness in his blood, and when all the people in that ancient city took out the pain of their emptiness on him, they closed that long circle of loneliness. It was the love-starved offspring of Cain getting back at God for the legacy of isolation and guilt. But when I read the story all the way through, it turns out God is a pretty forgiving guy, with powers to raise the dead, cure the sick, to even touch the Mr. Lonely in you and me.

Maybe we should stop thinking of loneliness at Christmas as some kind of personal failure. It's the illness that's plagued the ages, and the cure is for someone to get it, to beat it, to provide the antibody we all need.

If we believe that, then old words like God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen are about more than cinnamon and candlelight. If we believe that, maybe we'll look at our city in a new light, start to catch hope.