14 Dec 2023

'Loneliness is one of the most human of feelings'

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 14 December 2023

It's not only people on their own who experience loneliness around Christmastime, says writer Dr Jeremy Nobel.

A feeling disconnected from the "holiday cheer" around us can lead to further self-isolation, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

"This can make you feel that there's something wrong with you, that you're flawed in some way. It then makes you withdraw a little bit more from social activities and you feel lonely." 

Dr Jeremy Nobel

Dr Jeremy Nobel Photo: Supplied

Dr Jeremy Nobel is the founder and president of The Foundation for Art & Healing (FAH) and its signature initiative Project UnLonely.  He is also on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His new book is also called Project UnLonely.

He tells Kathryn about his own experience of loneliness and how the arts and creativity can inspire, empower and connect us.

Related: Combating loneliness and reconnecting in Aotearoa

Whenever you feel lonely, first remember that it's not your fault, Dr Nobel says.

"It's not like you're broken or flawed or incomplete in some way. You need human connection so in a way it is one of the most human of feelings. And we all are lonely from time to time.

"Rather than interpreting these transitory feelings [as a signal] that there's something flawed or wrong with you, think about it as a signal [that you need connection] just like thirst is a signal you need hydration."

Some people find it very hard to form authentic friendships or even have simple conversations because theyre very cautious about exposing themselves due to traumatic experiences, he says.

Although people often withdraw in order to protect themselves from further trauma, self-isolation only increases a sense of loneliness which is further accelerated by negative feelings.

Dr Nobel experienced this kind of loneliness himself. At 15, he discovered his father having a heart attack that would prove fatal. In the years that followed, he felt that he'd let his father down.

"[Feeling that I was to blame] generated in me a sense of guilt and shame and inadequacy that made it very hard for me to feel good about being out in the world connecting with other people … I was a friendly guy, I had friends, but yet to actually connect deeply was elusive."

Writing about his feelings in the form of poetry, although no "magic silver pill" helped Dr Nobel work through the experience of disconnection.

"I started having more confidence to connect with people, share more things and begin to realise that maybe I wasn't as flawed a person as I thought and to work my way out of the deep hole of self-rejection if you will, that this trauma caused."

As a safe way to start exploring stronger connections with yourself and others, the arts offer four special features, Dr Nobel says.

1. They engage our attention (in a world where we're continuously distracted)

2. They provide inspiration: "Inspiration is a very special type of motivation towards something on the grander, larger, more meaningful scale, to make a difference in the world perhaps or to do something for your community."

3. They empower us: "Not only do we have an inspirational vision about how we might want to spend our time, but we actually feel empowered to achieve it."

4. They connect us: "We feel like we're part of a much larger story of human experience …that gives us a comforting identity and a position from which we can connect not just to others but to ourselves."

As well as writing and music, gardening - which one of Dr Nobel's friends calls "the world's slowest performance art form" - and cooking can also encourage a sense of connection.

Textile arts, such as knitting, crocheting and quilting, are a way to make something that can articulate deep feelings and a sense of connection to the person you're making it for - if it's a gift - or with yourself if it's something that you want to enjoy.

"These are very powerful ways to work your way out of the negative spiral towards a positive spiral where you're guided by a sense of curiosity, leading to optimism, leading to a sense that maybe you're not alone."

If conversation with others feels too exposing, Dr Nobel says, another way to explore connection is to think about activities or interests that really delight you and find ways to explore them in group settings.

"Find other people who share that same interest and then express yourself through your interest in the shared activity … that gives you a chance to show up, be yourself, to express thoughts and feelings."