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Don't neglect all the lonely people

What's a good way to keep from getting lonely in this high holy season of togetherness? Stay away from lonely people.

It's brutal but true, and it's the cutting-edge finding of researchers whose mission it is to discover the causes of loneliness so we can combat it with full force.

Think this is just a scholarly version of a "Dr. Phil" episode? Think again.

The lead researcher on this project, with James H. Fowler of the University of California at San Diego and Harvard University's Nicholas A. Christakis, is University of Chicago neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo, who last year co-wrote a groundbreaking book arguing that far from being a personal issue, mass loneliness threatens our public health.

This study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, seeks to map the geography of loneliness. Who feels it? And what is the connection of these Eleanor Rigbys to the rest of us? What the authors found is that, like a virus, loneliness is contagious. People become lonely because of who they know as much as who they don't know.

It makes sense. When people are lonely, they tend to be less trusting and even irritable toward others. This type of behavior easily can make those on the receiving end feel a sense of isolation and loneliness. In other words, lonely people pass on their loneliness. Before alienated people check into a cave, they alienate others, thereby continuing the chain. As the researchers put it, this means that loneliness is "both a cause and consequence of becoming disconnected."

Just as bad news travels faster than good news, the authors found that the spread of loneliness is "more powerful than the spread of nonloneliness." Loneliness is so pernicious, it stands to reason people would go to great lengths to curb its spread.

In his book, "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection," Cacioppo argues loneliness, like fear, is a useful emotion.

Ideally, it ought to cause people to seek comfort and safety in other humans, ultimately solidifying necessary social bonds rather than destroying them.

In this study, however, the authors suggest that in some cases, as with rhesus monkeys that drive off or eliminate once-isolated monkeys that have been reintroduced to the colony, humans also may shun isolated members of their species. They speculate that this collective rejection may serve to protect "the structural integrity of social networks" necessary to society.

Why is the contagion of loneliness and the shunning response important news? For starters, because Americans are lonelier than they have ever been. Studies show we move in smaller social circles and have fewer confidants than we used to. Add to this the probability of loneliness contagion and you get a snowball effect.

And there's more. Because the rest of us shun the lonely, we've got a prescription for deep divides and levels of isolation that could threaten the cohesion required for any society to function.

The spread of individual loneliness has mass social consequences, and among them are insidious effects on democratic values. We're all aware that associations and affiliations, which socialize us into democratic life, are at the heart of democracy. The more lonely, divided and isolated we become, the less we participate and associate. The fewer people who participate actively in democracy, the more everyone is at the mercy of the loudmouthed extremists and demagogues who do engage.

We should think of loneliness, then, not just as a sad condition haunting some of us but as a seed of political disunity. Not only does growing social isolation undermine the social contract, it leaves the public grasping for ways to connect. Indeed, as society becomes more atomized, the electorate might very well become more susceptible to calls for dangerous forms of solidarity, be they national, religious, ethnic or partisan. Research already suggests that social isolation leaves individuals more willing to embrace the abstract certainties of rigid ideologies.

To counteract the threat inherent in the spread of loneliness, Cacioppo and his colleagues advocate for more targeted social interventions. They don't spell out what they mean, but I surmise their next publications will outline exactly how they'd go about repairing all those fraying social networks.

For the time being, maybe it's enough to know that turning your back on all the lonely people may prevent you from catching the isolation bug, but it won't protect you -- along with the rest of society -- in the long run. So do the right thing this Christmas: Rise above your instinct and don't shun them at all.

Rodriguez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times' opinion pages, is director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.

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