The holiday season can be a time of community and family gatherings. But for some, it can be a season of more complicated feelings, including increased loneliness and isolation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people to physically distance themselves from family members and loved ones over the past three years. Many may choose to keep their distance again this year during the “tridemic” of influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
A 2021 study from Morning Consult found that 58% of Americans are lonely. Some are lonely by circumstance and others by choice, but Dr. Jeremy Nobel, who teaches a course on loneliness at Harvard, says societal expectations play a role in loneliness during the holiday season.
“It’s not just isolation – it’s the expectation created by culture, by advertising that the only normal way to be on vacation, the only way to access joy and celebration is to be with others,” Nobel told PBS NewsHour’s Nicole Ellis. . “So imagine the feeling if you don’t have a way to make those kinds of connections.”
Watch the conversation in the player above.
Loneliness and isolation are often associated with their effects on mental and emotional health. But Nobel says it’s also important to understand the impact on physical health that can result from experiencing these feelings.
“What has only recently come to light is that loneliness will not only make you unhappy, it will kill you. And not just from suicide or drug overdose, but from heart disease, d ‘cancer or other types of physical ailments,” Nobel said. “It turns out that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 30%, as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Although loneliness is widely felt by Americans, it disproportionately affects young people, people of color and low-income people, according to the Cigna study. The study found that 79% of adults aged 18 to 24 report feeling lonely, compared to 41% of people aged 66 and over. Nobel says social media is a big factor in why younger generations are experiencing loneliness at higher rates.
“It’s very performance driven when you think about it. You continually expose yourself to the world as if you were on stage,” he said. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with being on stage occasionally, but when you’re always on stage, that stuff almost forces a separation between your performance state and your authentic state.”
Understanding the difference between being alone and being alone is important, Nobel said. While the latter can boost your health and confidence because it allows you to explore who you are and how you fit into the world beyond comparisons with others, the former is what often happens on vacation.
“Being alone is a very specific feeling of something that’s missing, and what’s missing is the feeling of connection with people at the level that you want to have that connection and in that gap between the social connections that you crave and that what you feel you have is what we call loneliness,” Nobel said.
Loneliness can be divided into two different types, says Nobel. The first is psychological and the second is existential or spiritual. He describes psychological loneliness as the lack of a friend or confidant to share your problems with, while existential or spiritual loneliness involves questioning your place in the universe or whether your life makes a difference.
No matter what kind of loneliness a person experiences, Nobel says connecting with yourself is important for developing relationships with others.
“Often the path to connecting with others starts with connecting with yourself. To give yourself space, to be genuinely curious about what matters to you in the world, what interests you,” he said. he said, “And as you move into it and explore it, it often opens up channels for you to connect with other people who have similar curiosities and similar interests.”
Nobel started and directs Project Unlonely at the Foundation for Art & Healing, which promotes the creative arts as a way to explore curiosities and make connections.
“You can express that curiosity in the object being made, whether it’s a drawing, a poem, or even a cheesecake that you then bring to your neighbor,” he said. . “This artifact is something that can then invite conversation and [it is] these conversations and their authenticity that connect us.
If you’re experiencing loneliness this holiday season, Project Unlonely offers a variety of resources.
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