In his ongoing Chicago Health Aging and Social Relations
Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, Cacioppo
and colleagues have also linked loneliness with depressive
symptoms and an increase in blood pressure over time.
Other research indicates positive social connections might
accelerate disease recovery. In a study of 200 breast cancer
survivors, psychologist Lisa Jaremka, PhD, and colleagues
at the Ohio State University found that lonelier women
experienced more pain, depression and fatigue than those
who had stronger connections to friends and family. The
more disconnected women also had elevated levels of a
particular antibody associated with the herpes virus — a sign
of a weakened immune system (Psychoneuroendocrinology,
Particular genes may play a role in explaining why our
bodies are so attuned to our social lives, says psychologist
Steve Cole, PhD, at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In one study, he and colleagues including Cacioppo analyzed
the gene expression profiles of chronically lonely people and
found that genes expressed within two subtypes of white
blood cells are uniquely responsive to feelings of loneliness.
The cells — plasmacytoid dendritic cells and monocytes
— are associated with diseases such as atherosclerosis and
cancer, as well as “first line of defense” immune responses
(PNAS , 2011).
Cole says the most “biologically toxic” aspect of loneliness
is that it can make you feel chronically threatened, an
emotion that can wear on the immune system. “It’s really
that sense of unsafe threat, that vague worry, that’s probably
what’s actually kicking off the fight-or-flight stress responses
that affect the immune system most directly,” he says.
Friends in adulthood
As researchers work to better understand the link between
friendships and health, they’re also helping to answer a
question familiar to anyone who’s ever moved to a new city,
lost a spouse or otherwise found themselves feeling alone:
How do you make friends as an adult? Here’s what the
research suggests might work:
• Be a familiar face. The idea that familiarity breeds
attraction is long-established by research, and was again
supported in a 2011 study led by psychologist Harry Reis,
PhD, at the University of Rochester. In the first experiment,
same-sex strangers rated how much they liked one another
after having several structured conversations. In the other,
strangers chatted freely online. In both cases, the amount
(Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011).
Rachel Bertsche, a writer in Chicago, witnessed this
phenomenon outside of the lab when she joined a weekly
comedy class a few years ago. At first, she thought her
classmates were strange. But she gradually changed her mind
— and soon wound up joining the group for drinks after
class. “Consistency is so important,” she says.
Fehr agrees. She says sticking to a simple routine —
whether it’s going to the same coffee shop at the same time
every day, joining a class like Bertsche or even just going to
the office mailroom when it’s most crowded — can help turn
strangers into friends.
Why psychologists need friends
Friends are important, no matter who you are.
But psychologists’ careers may depend on
friendship, says Brad Johnson, PhD, a professor
of psychology in the Department of Leadership,
Ethics and Law at the U.S. Naval Academy and
former chair of APA’s Ethics Committee.
“There’s lots of evidence that human beings
APA President Nadine Kaslow, PhD, of Emory
are generally not especially accurate when it
comes to any assessment of a character trait or a
skill,” he says. “Sadly, the same applies to health-
care professionals — we are not very good at ac-
curately assessing our own level of competence.”
Johnson and others urge psychologists to
create “competency communities” through
which they can engage in feedback from trusted
friends and colleagues. Such a network was
critical to Johnson, who turned to his clinical
psychologist sister Shannon Johnson, PhD, as
well as colleagues Jeffrey Barnett, PsyD, and
Douglas Haldeman, PhD, when he was being
treated for a brain tumor. “ I really think that if I
had been an isolated person in private practice
at that point, this really would have been more
problematic,” says Johnson.
University in Atlanta, says the friends and
colleagues in her “competence constellation”
have supported her through good times and bad.
“ I greatly value the strength of these bonds, the
honesty in these relationships and the diversity of
perspectives these colleagues offer,” she says.
To spur a culture change away from
independence and more toward mutual
trust and compassionate feedback, these
psychologists have recommended changes
to the APA Ethics Code that obligates
psychologists to look out for one another.
“If we don’t take adequate care of ourselves,
eventually, our ability to care for others does
deteriorate,” Barnett says.
— ANNA MILLER