How Loneliness Can Contribute to the Onset of Depression

This week brings us a study on a somewhat, well, depressing topic: how loneliness makes people depressed and how depression makes people lonely.

Granted, it doesn’t take a scientist to know that loneliness and depression can reinforce each other, but this study went a little further than that. It looked to untangle the specific mechanics and the timing of how loneliness contributes to depression.

In the study, researchers followed 417 women over the course of 20 months, concentrating on a few main variables:

  • How lonely the participants were
  • How they appraised their social company (that is, whether they liked the people they spent time with)
  • How much time they actually spent alone
  • Whether they developed Major Depressive Disorder

Unsurprisingly, being lonely did make the women more likely to develop depression, but the researchers found a particular link between how loneliness and depression were connected.

Specifically, feelings of loneliness tended to lead people to subsequently evaluate their social company more negatively, which in turn led them to to spend more time alone. Finally, spending more time alone was associated with greater odds of developing depression.

Along the same lines, the researchers found an interesting difference between participants who developed depression over the course of the study and those who didn’t. It turned out that when the participants who developed depression spent time with social company they appraised negatively, they tended to withdraw and were more likely to be alone an hour and a half later. By contrast, those who didn’t develop depression didn’t tend to react to unfavorable social company this way.

Finally, even though being lonely made people more likely to withdraw from social contact, the opposite was not true. That is, withdrawing from social contact paradoxically didn’t tend to make people more lonely. According to the researchers, this could mean that “being together with negatively appraised social company can be more loneliness inducing than the absence of social interactions.”

These findings suggest that loneliness can contribute to the onset of depression in complex ways. There may be a chain reaction that starts with loneliness, continues with people evaluating their social company negatively and withdrawing, and culminates in Major Depression. The researchers point out that if this finding holds, an important part of treating depression could turn out to be to “highlight and help people discover negative social cognitions, emotions, and behaviors that hinder people from reconnecting with others.”

Image: Flickr/Morgan