What’s in Your Head Matters: New Studies Show Link Between Loneliness and Health

When it comes to loneliness quality rather than quantity of relationships is key.

In 1993, the movie “Six Degrees of Separation” popularized the idea that everyone is at most six steps away from any other person on earth, so that a chain of “friend to friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.

In the movie, rich NYC art dealers, the Kittredges, are at first entranced and then stunned when a young con man claiming to be a friend of their son’s at Harvard regales them with tales of his life. Though his lies are exposed, the couple remains irrevocably touched by his impact and try desperately to find him when he disappears.

It seemed their perception of what he brought to their lives outweighed the deception. And so it is with loneliness in two fascinating new University of Arizona studies: the research team found that above all, loneliness is a matter of perception. In this era of instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter, when it does seem as if we all share some universal connections, what matters, according to researchers is not how many Facebook friends we have, whether we live near loved ones or even if we are partnered up, but how we feel about the relationships we have.

Loneliness is the discrepancy between your achieved and desired level of social contact, and that has important implications,” says Chris Segrin, the UA Communication Department Head and lead author of the study. “The portrait of a lonely person is very difficult to paint because what is really important is what is in your head.”

Segrin and Stacey Passalacqua, who recently earned her UA doctorate in interpersonal and health communication, decided to study individual perceptions of stress and social support to understand ways loneliness may be linked to health.

In a study of 265 adults ages 19 to 85, Segrin and Passalacqua found that stress plays a crucial role for those who reported being lonely. They found that lonely people were prone to have fewer close connections, were less apt to manage daily stressors well and tended not to keep up on their health. Also, lonely people did not get adequate sleep.

So while people can experience the same stressors – be they financial or relationship problems or just life’s annoyances – lonely people will have different responses according to an article “Functions of Loneliness, Social Support, Health Behaviors, and Stress in Association With Poor Health,” the pair published in a June issue of Health Communication.

Of particular interest was the fact that even people with large social networks experience loneliness, and that quality, not quantity was the decisive factor when it comes to relationships.

Segrin also collaborated with Tricia Domschke, a doctoral degree candidate in communication, on another study “Social Support, Loneliness, Recuperative Processes and their Direct and Indirect Effects on Health,” which has also been accepted for publication also in Health Communication.

Segrin and Domschke found that lonely people did not get as much of a recharge from activities like going on vacation or getting a good night’s sleep as those who were happy with their relationships. What both studies suggest is that people need to care for themselves and a crucial way of doing this is nurturing relationships.

Perceptions are all it takes, and when you experience stress, it has a physiological effect on the body,” she added. “The mind has such a powerful effect on the body and, really, our perceptions are going to shape our world,” says Passalacqua.

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