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2020 Influencers in Aging

Dr. Jeremy Nobel Believes It’s Okay to Say 'I’m Lonely'

The president of the Foundation for Art & Healing urges us to stay connected and get creative

By Julie Pfitzinger

Dr. Jeremy Nobel's life work is dedicated to healing – as a physician and faculty member of the Harvard Medical School, in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, the list of achievements relative to his medical career is long.  

He is also dedicated to the healing of soul and spirit, as the founder and president of the Foundation for Art & Healing (FAH), a nonprofit based in Boston, where Nobel, 66, lives. It explores the connection between the two elements of healing and art, and raises awareness about points of connectivity. Loneliness and isolation, and the impact not only on individuals, but on society in general, are also areas of focus.

Once the pandemic hit in force last spring, FAH, in partnership with AARP and other organizations, launched "Stuck at Home (together)" featuring a variety of creative and inspiring options (music, stories and other activities) with the goal of offering emotional solace.

According to an August article in Scientific American, before the pandemic, more than two-thirds of Americans considered themselves lonely. And while people are self-isolating due to the pandemic, Nobel said "loneliness literacy" is increasing, which could help decrease the stigma around the topic: making it okay for someone to admit, "I'm lonely," but also know how to look within to find creative resources to foster connections with others.

For Nobel, one of his personal creative resources is writing poetry. His work has been recognized with the Bain-Swiggett Prize from Princeton University and the American Academy of Poets Prize from the University of Pennsylvania. Of his poetry, Nobel says, it gives him a valuable opportunity "to be in the moment" with his own thoughts and feelings.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Next Avenue: As we are all living through the physical and social distancing brought about by the pandemic, what it means to be lonely is top of mind. What most concerns you about the impact of loneliness during this complicated time?

Dr. Jeremy Nobel: You know, what concerns me most about loneliness is it has a tendency to be self -perpetuating and accelerate. Loneliness literacy is one of the big events going on now, but people are recognizing that loneliness is subjective. It's a feeling, it's not physical.

We now have this involuntary physical isolation because of COVID-19 to reduce the viral transmission risk, but it isn't essential that we be disconnected socially from others. But it happens.

"People don't want to say they're lonely. They don't want to say the word."

It particularly happens for people who are already at risk for social disconnection; marginalized populations, people who already have a major illness, people of color, LGBT people, anyone who already is uncertain about their social interaction and the regard that other people have for them – all of these people are already at risk.

Can you talk more about the struggles of those who already felt socially disconnected prior to the pandemic?

I think many people have the ability to find the social connections, even in a Zoom environment, that allows them to at least be stable for now. I'm very concerned about the people who do not, because here's what happens with loneliness: you get lonely or you tend to start having assessments about how other people want to be connected to you that may not be accurate.

You may feel that you don't have the worth that other people are looking for, or you may not have the validity, or you're interesting enough. So you tend to withdraw even more.

And there can be a stigma to loneliness.

Yes, it's tied to self-esteem issues. It's tied to a sense of validity, agency, self-worth, value, these things we know. People don't want to say they're lonely. They don't want to say the word.

So let's think about what's going on with COVID-19 right now because of involuntary isolation, which we have to do. People now are talking about loneliness and they're not stigmatized; in a sense, we're all lonely because we're facing a common enemy. Right? So, in a way, the loneliness now is a very different psychodynamic experience.

Do you think that there are going to be lessons learned about the impact of loneliness once the world opens up again? For instance, will people who connected with their neighbors and communities maintain those connections, which could be beneficial to society in general going forward? Or is that wishful thinking?

It may be wishful thinking, but I share it. In fact, I'm very optimistic about that exact point.

The UnLonely Project, which we launched in May, 2016, has three goals. The first is to increase awareness about loneliness and its toxicity. The second is to reduce stigma. And the third is to design and make available programs that can address it.

"By the way, loneliness is not the same as being alone, which can be so positive."

We don't have to work so hard making people aware about loneliness right now. That's helped us a lot with tremendous receptivity for our programming; not just with older adults, but in the workplace, on college campuses and in the [larger] community for particularly isolated groups, like veterans, caregivers, communities of color. All of our programming is getting accelerated attention. That's fantastic.

People are talking about loneliness now; blogging about it, doing all of these things. Fantastic. And all I'm hoping is that when this pandemic passes, as it surely will, we'll remember that it's okay to say 'I'm lonely.' I'm very optimistic about that.

By the way, loneliness is not the same as being alone, which can be so positive. We even have a fancy word for it – solitude.

The Stuck at Home (together) project has been tackling the COVID-19 situation in so many cool and creative ways, focused on pursuits like art and music. Why is creativity so important in the face of what's happening in the world now?

I think there's three things that happen when you do some sort of creative activity, whether it's doodling or gardening or cooking — when you really allow yourself to be in the creative moment.

The first is when you're in that moment, you're fully aware and present in that moment without distraction. And I think many people believe that one of the burdens of the modern world is continuous partial attention to everything.

The second is that you're trying to make sense of things. When you make art, in a way you're telling a story, you're expressing something, often difficult things that are hard to say face-to-face. They're hard to say using literal language.

Once you've made something, created it out of your thoughts and feelings, you've told your story, but then you have something you can share. That's the third piece: Sharing is where connection happens with others. And frankly, with yourself. It's like, 'Oh, I made this. And wow, isn't that interesting?'

You are a poet. Have you been writing poetry during the pandemic? What does writing poetry bring to your life?

I have been writing and it's not different from what I said [about creativity] because I'm not different from anyone else. It puts me in the moment when I write, it allows me to clear away a lot of the distraction, clear the clutter in my thinking.

"Maybe ask yourself, 'What is it I can find out about my loneliness, or loneliness in general?'"

I'm very worried about the country, the world, individual people. I'm incredibly fortunate, almost privileged by comparison to others, in terms of the work I get to do, the wonderful network of friends and colleagues I have.

[Poetry] has given me a chance to do what I said, be in the moment, be in touch with difficult thoughts and feelings to make something that I can share if I want to. I sometimes do. I often don't. Even if I don't share it, I've felt I've gotten something done and I feel better, to use a technical term (laughs).

If somebody is reading this and they've started to wonder, 'Am I too lonely? Am I more than isolated?,' what is your advice to them about positive steps they can take?

So here I am, being asked as an expert talking about loneliness, but the guidance I have is to try not to be afraid of it. Try not to be anxious about it. I would encourage people to try to get curious about it. Curiosity is an incredibly strong jumping off point to discovery. Maybe ask yourself, 'What is it I can find out about my loneliness or about loneliness in general?' Start and be playful with it, ask it questions.

And, of course, take it seriously if you feel your loneliness is taking you into a high-risk zone, if you find that you're really struggling with substance use or abuse. We all have challenges. Don't be ashamed of that, or sharing with someone, 'Hey, this is what's going on for me. And I'm a little concerned.'

Because if you can tolerate that disclosure, it'll help a lot with the loneliness too. Take care of yourself, and don't let your negative self-assessments and your negative self-conversations around loneliness keep you from getting whatever help and assistance you may need.

We want to reduce the stigma around talking about loneliness, to where our willingness to tolerate the discomfort of disclosure is routine. And when [statistics show] that over fifty percent of people are lonely, all I can say is the obvious: You have a lot of company, so maybe you're not as alone as you think.

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?

We need to better celebrate aging! Unfortunately, ageism devalues the perspectives and experiences of older adults, dividing generations and robbing us of the wisdom and potential contributions that seniors can offer. I hope we can approach aging with admiration, respect and reverence to build healthier, happier and less lonely communities.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

As we age, we learn that health is an asset that's shared among both individuals and communities. Coronavirus forced this lesson on everyone in an instant rather than over time. I believe this perspective increases empathy and understanding of health concerns and inequities so we can achieve impactful progress together.

Photograph of Julie Pfitzinger
Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email her at [email protected] Read More

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Dr. Jeremy Nobel Believes It’s Okay to Say 'I’m Lonely'
The president of the Foundation for Art & Healing urges us to stay connected and get creative

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