U. ARIZONA (US)—Hoarding friends on Facebook—or followers on Twitter—won’t do much to stave off loneliness if those relationships lack any kind of strong connection, new research finds.
The study also suggests that superficial relationships can not only result in feelings of detachment, but also contribute to certain health-related problems.
“There is an association between social networks and health but the precise mechanism is not understood,” says Stacey Passalacqua, who recently earned a doctorate in interpersonal and health communication with a minor in psychology from the University of Arizona.
Passalacqua and Chris Segrin, head of the communications department at UA and lead author on the papers, studied individual perceptions of stress and social support to understand ways loneliness may be linked to health.
The study of 265 adults ages 19 to 85, showed that stress serves a crucial function for those who reported being lonely. 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 don’t get adequate sleep.
Details appear in the June issue of Health Communication.
Segrin notes that age does not predict whether a person will be lonely and living away from close friends and family does not have a negative effect. Also, having relationships mediated by digital modes is not necessarily problematic, though relationships well-established prior to the distance were likely the strongest.
Being partnered does not shield a person from feelings of loneliness, Segrin adds. Instead, having close friends and family members appears to be more important.
“The mere presence of a relationship is not always something that is going to lead to you feeling satisfied and supported,” he explains.
Another curious conclusion: Above all, loneliness is a matter of perception.
“Loneliness is the discrepancy between your achieved and desired level of social contact, and that has important implications,” Segrin says. “The portrait of a lonely person is very difficult to paint because what is really important is what is in your head.”
So people can experience the same stressors—maybe the car breaks down, or a checking account overdraws, or maybe a relationship is not going well and someone just needs to vent—and have entirely different responses.
It is no wonder, then, that certain people with large social networks also express feelings of loneliness. When it comes to relationships, quality, not quantity, is the decisive factor, Passalacqua says.
“There are so many people we have in our day-to-day interactions,” she says. “But the absence of close family members and close friends is something that should be taken seriously. Sometimes we don’t realize how important these close relationships are to our health.”
In another study, that will be published in a future issue of Health Communication, Segrin found that lonely people did not enjoy leisure activities or get regenerate effects from sleep at a comparable level as others did. So when it came to taking a vacation, getting a good night’s sleep, or going for a swim, lonely people did not get as much of a recharge.
What both studies suggest is that people need not only to take better care of themselves, but learn to nurture relationships.
“We know that chronic stressors are very damaging to the human system,” Passalacqua says.
“Perceptions are all it takes, and when you experience stress, it has a physiological effect on the body,” she adds. “The mind has such a powerful effect on the body and, really, our perceptions are going to shape our world.
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