The UnLonely Project, an initiative of the Foundation for Art and Healing, aims to treat the âepidemic of lonelinessâ in the United States using creative arts as medicine.
Singer-songwriter Emily L. Maguire begins each day by writing a poem. Itâs a process that takes her no more than a few minutes. âBy the time I finish [my] coffee it just falls out of my head,â she says. âMy poetry is really automatic writing.â Poetry offers Maguire a way to deal with bouts of depression, during which songs are simply too difficult to write. The act of writing, she says, makes her feel more connected to the world.
Maguire is one of several artists collaborating with the UnLonely Project, an initiative of the Foundation for Art and Healing which aims to treat the âepidemic of lonelinessâ in the United States using creative arts as medicine.
The project is the brainchild of Jeremy J. Nobel, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and avid poet and photographer. It reflects Nobelâs intersecting interests in art and medicine, advocating creative expression as a treatment for loneliness, an issue its website calls a âpublic health concern.â
Nobel says the UnLonely Projectâs goals are threefold: to increase public awareness of loneliness as a health problem, reduce stigma and facilitate conversation, and provide resources to help people cope.
Spreading awareness begins with what Nobel terms âloneliness literacy,â or defining what it means to experience loneliness. âBeing lonely is the perception someone has of the gap between the social connection you would like to have, that you aspire to, that you desire, and the ones you actually feel you do have,â Nobel explains. This perceived gap varies from person to person: Someone may long for a crowd of acquaintances, while their neighbor may long for a single close friend.
Because of these differences, isolation doesnât necessarily imply loneliness. âIf youâre on Mars, and you have the universe's most powerful telescope that can see through walls, you could pick out the isolated people on planet Earth, but you could not pick out the lonely people,â Nobel says.
Maguire, who currently lives on a goat farm in the Australian bush, makes a similar distinction. She describes loneliness as suffering, while being alone can be âsomething incredibly precious.â
And loneliness can even be useful, Nobel says â" in small doses. He draws an analogy between loneliness and thirst, both bodily signals. Whereas thirst prompts the body to hydrate, loneliness prompts the mind to connect. Ignoring this signal can cause sustained, severe loneliness, which may lead to serious health problems.
Though loneliness is difficult to quantify, survey data demonstrate its epidemic proportions: Loneliness afflicts more than one third of American adults, with the highest numbers concentrated in the 18 to 22-year-old demographic. The UnLonely Projectâs website lists the negative effects of loneliness on both mental and physical health, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, dementia, heart disease, and cancer. All maladies considered, loneliness can increase mortality risk by 30 percent, a figure on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the United States Health Resources and Services Administration.
The UnLonely Project encompasses a number of programs and initiatives. Its website contains programming for four specific categories: Aging, Campus, Community, and Workplace. Ongoing is the Fourth Annual UnLonely Film Festival, featuring free short films from award-winning filmmakers that are accompanied by activities and discussion boards to connect viewers.
The Projectâs latest endeavor addresses a new flavor of loneliness exacerbated by COVID-19: that of widespread involuntary isolation. âStuck at Home (Together),â a new page on the Foundation for Art and Healing website, presents artist spotlights, creative writing exercises, and mental health check-ins, among other things.
Creative arts as treatment for a medical issue might seem an unusual prescription. But for Nobel, the connection is clear. Whether writing a poem or drawing a cartoon, arts often provide an outlet for self-expression. This refreshing authenticity, when shared with another, can encourage a reciprocal vulnerability and spark a genuine connection. âThen itâs like an electric circuit gets closed, and youâre both connected,â he says.
For Maguire, who struggles with bipolar disorder, her art is a way of expressing âfeelings that otherwise get stuck inside.â Her music also forges a genuine connection with her fans. âThe healing really is for them,â she says. âThey feel like Iâve understood their pain, what theyâre going through.â
Loneliness can be intimidating, but Nobel advises approaching it with a mixture of curiosity and discipline. To explore feelings of isolation, he recommends âengaging with a piece of art,â whether itâs programming from his project or anything that inspires a creative response.
âYou can just look at it and say: âOh, what does this remind me of?â Or: âWhat am I curious about here?â And as small a step as that is, then youâre beginning to disclose something. Youâre engaging. And if you share it, even better.â
The rest, Nobel says, is daily practice: âExercise some deliberate self-care and try to be more connected. Almost like flossing your teeth, you know. âIâm going to connect today.ââ
Maguire suggests an alternative approach: a Buddhist meditation practice called Tonglen. âYou say to yourself, âThere are millions and millions of people in the world who are feeling exactly what Iâm feeling right now,ââ she explains. âYou breathe in their pains, and then you breathe out and you send them your love.â
Nobel concludes with an example of a simple act of sharing that inspired connection in his own life. He recalls photographing gorgeous sunsets from his time at a writing retreat, noting that while the view itself was enjoyable, âsending [the photos] to people and getting their response was every bit and in some ways even more gratifying.â He urges us to take small risks like these, to maintain a sense of humor and stop worrying about the possibility of failure â" in this case, not receiving a response. âPeople are busy,â he admits, âbut it doesnât mean they donât care about you or your picture.â
Still, he chooses to err on the side of optimism: âAlmost guaranteed, theyâre going to respond, and then youâre going to feel something. And my guess is what youâre going to feel is more connected.â
â" Staff writer Maliya V. Ellis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @EllisMaliya.