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 OK 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.
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 /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +1.72% 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.