When I’m sick, there’s nothing I’d rather do than curl up in bed and binge YouTube videos. When I get a text from my friends to hang out, I reply with a pathetic no or pretend not to see the message. I simply don’t have the energy or patience to go out when I have a cold.
However, a study led by Rice University psychologist Chris Fagundes has found that having company will lighten the mood when you’re sick. On the flip side, feeling lonely could make you feel even worse. This isn’t the first time health has been correlated to company. There are many studies in which marriage was a key factor in boosting cancer survival, however there wasn’t much research on short-term ailments like the common cold.
Angie LeRoy, a graduate student who researched this phenomenon at Rice University said, “Loneliness puts people at risk for premature mortality and all kinds of other physical illnesses. But nothing has been done to look at an acute but temporary illness that we’re all vulnerable to.”
Researchers explained that people who were lonely were more likely to report severe cold symptoms compared to those with stronger social bonds. In the study, they gathered 159 people between the ages of 18 to 55 who were psychologically assessed as lonely. The subjects were then given cold-inducing nasal drops and quarantined for five days. They were then asked to report how they felt.
Most subjects described their symptoms as being severe, however what researchers found interesting was that the quality of the participants’ social networks had a greater positive impact on their reports as opposed to the quantity of relationships they fostered. Those with stronger social bonds did not feel as bad as those with larger social networks.
“Previous research has shown that different psycho-social factors like feeling rejected or feeling left out or not having strong social bonds with other people do make people feel worse physically, mentally and emotionally,” Leroy said. “So we had that general framework to work with.”
This phenomenon can also be applied outside of short-term ailments. In fact, Fagundes mentioned numerous stressors that our body could react to. He states:
Anytime you have an illness, it’s a stressor, and this phenomenon would probably occur. A predisposition, whether it’s physical or mental, can be exaggerated by a subsequent stressor. In this case, the subsequent stressor is getting sick, but it could be the loss of a loved one, or getting breast cancer, which are subjects we also study.
If being lonely is negatively affecting our health, we should try to make strides to build our social networks and become more socially active. This does not mean we should go out and make friends with everyone on the street, but we should take care of our current relationships and build strong friendships. Quality over quantity, as they always say.