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Worldwide, approximately 1 in 4 adults report feeling alone. And the consequences of long-term social disconnection can be dire – from increased risk of heart attack to dementia and premature death.
But social isolation is neither new nor rare. And the pangs of solitude are not catastrophic. In fact, they are almost universal. What is crucial is how people respond to these feelings when they arise.
“Just like thirst is a signal that you need hydration, loneliness is a signal that you need human connection,” says Dr. Jeremy Nobel, a primary care physician and author of the new book. UnLonely Projectwhich offers a roadmap for building connections, using creative expression as a means of communication.
Many factors can increase vulnerability to loneliness, including trauma, illness, or membership in a marginalized group. The tendency toward individualism and independence inherent in American culture may also play a role. The mentality of pulling yourself up and fending for yourself “is part of the American psyche,” Nobel says.
Of course, it is possible to be both independent and socially connected, but in recent decades, as societal norms have changed, there are countervailing forces that can make some people more prone to loneliness.
“A hundred years ago, your identity was almost entirely defined by your gender, religion, and status,” Nobel says, and there wasn’t much flexibility to change it. Now people have more freedom to chart their own path and create their own identity. “It’s both a set of opportunities and a set of challenges,” he says, because the process of figuring out who you are and where you fit in can be disorienting or confusing.
When there is no prescribed way to “belong,” it can be difficult to find connection. Many people are hesitant to express themselves or have difficulty communicating what they think. “This is where the arts can be very powerful because they act as a catalyst to make things easier,” says Nobel. Drawing a picture may seem like a solitary act, but it can be a bridge to connection, a way to express what’s on your mind.
Nobel is a poet. “I feel like I’m in conversation with a reader I’m imagining when I write a poem,” he says. It is one of the art forms that helped him overcome the trauma and loneliness he experienced as a teenager after the death of his father and as a young adult after the deaths of two close friends. Believing in the medicinal power of creative expression, he founded the Foundation for Art & Healing about 20 years ago.
Some of his early work involved active duty military and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress. They gathered in small groups to participate in artistic expression and mindfulness activities. At this point, Nobel’s main goal was to help people cope with trauma. “People started telling us that not only were they less stressed, but they felt more connected to each other, which I later realized was a certain form of loneliness “, explains Nobel.
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Project UnLonely now partners with community organizations to develop evidence-based creative expression programs, which can include music, painting, drawing and more. Nobel says the options are endless. “The culinary arts are a big part of it,” he says. Many people find creative expression in cooking and baking. There are also textile arts like knitting, crochet or quilting. Even gardening is a form of artistic expression. “It’s what a friend of mine calls the slowest form of performance art in the world,” Nobel says.
Research shows that making art or even looking at other people’s work reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also increases levels of feel-good hormones, including dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. “So what the arts do is they relax you and put you in a good mood,” Nobel says, which can help create an inviting ambiance for connecting. One of the goals of the UnLonely project is to encourage people to start out on their own. Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Be curious
It’s easier to connect with people if you have common interests or experiences, so start paying attention to what you think. What are you thinking about? What motivates you? What are you passionate about? Nobel says that knowing yourself can be a first step in connecting with others. “I think it’s best to connect authentically with others — and maybe only — if you have some sort of authentic connection with yourself,” Nobel says. If you know what’s important or fun to you, it can lead you to an activity or creative outlet that will connect you with people who share your interests.
2. Do something
“When we say we’re doing something, people immediately say, ‘Well, I’m not Picasso. I don’t know how to do a fancy painting,'” Nobel says. And of course, that’s not the case! But the possibilities for creative expression are endless. “Do a doodle (or) a dance step,” Nobel suggests. Resurrect your grandmother’s pie recipe, plant an herb garden, try some fiber art. “Create something that puts your thoughts, feelings, and vision of who you are and what matters into a tangible artifact that can then express those thoughts and feelings to others,” he says.
3. Take a risk by having conversations
“Share something about yourself,” Nobel says. “It doesn’t have to be the biggest or darkest secret of your life, but just something you think other people might find interesting and compelling, and see where it goes.” Even if you’re afraid of being judged or fired, putting yourself out there requires some risk and is the first step toward authentic connection. If you created something – say your doodle, your dance move or your pie – it can be a catalyst for sharing. By simply explaining what you did, it can be easier to open up about who you are.
4. Find a group that matches your interests
Whether it’s volunteering for a cause you believe in or playing Frisbee or Scrabble, try to find other people who share your interests. And if you follow your natural curiosity, you might discover something new. In his book, Nobel describes an online group that shared a quirky common interest: a fascination with Alaskan brown bears, which led to Fat Bear Week.
“Share your thoughts and feelings creatively with others who share that interest,” he says. And, hopefully, in these interactions, you can begin to reveal yourself and share the unique things that matter to you. “Then other people recognize it, share their story back, and it’s like an electrical circuit is connected,” he says.
5. The loneliness of others matters too
Loneliness can become a spiral. If the pangs of loneliness are not alleviated, people can find themselves in a world of hurt. “If you see someone suffering from loneliness, tolerate the risk of asking them how they are,” says Nobel. Be kind. Be willing to share something about your own experiences of loneliness and take that risk. “The loneliness of others makes us lonely too,” he says.
This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh.
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