New year, holidays and spreading loneliness or happiness

by Dec 31, 2012Mental Health0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes

This blog arises as I, like many in my business, am all too aware of the fact that while the lucky ones in our society are and have been basking in the holiday closeness that Christmas and new Year brings, for all too many the experience can be one of loneliness and devastation. The children I work with who all are, or have been, in the care system, often find this time of the year the hardest of all as they are starkly in touch with what they do not have that others seem to.. While the data does not necessarily back up the belief that there is an increase in suicides at this time of the year, it is certainly a time when many feel the stark contrast between their lives and the happy relationships and families that the media constantly portray.


What we do know of course is that suicide rates and all manner of mental distress increase at times of economic recession. We know that suicide rates have skyrocketed since the recession, especially among men,  as the Independent recently reported. Even the Daily Mail reported today that unemployment increases the likelihood of male suicide by 2 or 3 times.

It is interesting that in recent days there have been statements about how society is being busted apart by the austerity measures, and in particular the sense of community that Cameron’s Big Society was supposed to enhance, is withering. Indeed we have heard suggestions by political leaders in the last few days that the cuts are likely to spark civic unrest.

Given that, there was interesting research reported this week that showed that it is not only the norovirus, but sadly loneliness can be extremely contagious.. This research was carried out by Dr John T. Cacioppo from the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, with colleagues. They found that feelings of loneliness, and the amount of interpersonal contact people have, occurs in clusters and spreads to people nearby via social interactions. Research shows that lonely people, Cacioppo reports, are likely to have many other problems, such as sleeping less well, consuming more alcohol, eating less healthy food and more likely to have a mood disorder.

Interestingly we know that behaviour does spread into groups. Good feelings can be contagious, we have known for a while. The famous dime in the phone booth experiment in the 1970’s showed this, in that when people found a dime they were subsequently more likely help others. Last week we also saw research by Kurt Gray from Washington showing that in fact bad behaviour breeds bad behaviour, and that if someone is not nice to us we are much more likely to be equally horrible to the next people we come across. Greed is it seems more contagious than generosity, Gray found.

We know that this is a vulnerable time of the year for many people. All the evidence is that we are healthier, mentally and physically, and happier when we have good social contacts and a sense of belonging. Last week other research even showed that pop-stars are more likely to die young if they are solo artists rather than those in bands!. This was even more likely if they had traumatic or abusive childhoods. This is a scary time for many of course. We need to look out for each other for sure, but this is a social and political issue as much as a personal one, about the kind of society we want. We certainly are not a ‘One Nation’ society at the moment

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