Written by : Transcript – Overcoming Loneliness With Dr. Jeremy Nobel 

Transcript – Overcoming Loneliness With Dr. Jeremy Nobel

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Overcoming Loneliness With Dr. Jeremy Nobel



[0:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 472 of Live Happy Now. Loneliness is one of the major challenges facing our society today. Since this is Loneliness Awareness Week, it’s a great time to look at what’s behind this loneliness epidemic. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week, I’m sitting down with physician, teacher, innovator, and author, Dr. Jeremy Nobel. founder of The Foundation for Art & Healing, and the Project UnLonely initiative.

Jeremy, who is also on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has published the book, Project UnLonely: Healing Our Crisis of Disconnection. He’s here to talk about what loneliness is doing to us and what we should be doing about it. Let’s have a listen.



[0:00:50] PF: Dr Nobel, thank you so much for joining us on Live Happy Now.

[0:00:54] JN: My pleasure to be with you.

[0:00:56] PF: It’s so important to talk to you any time of the year, but right now, we really are excited to talk to you, because we have Loneliness Awareness Week. Boy, loneliness is such a huge, huge issue for so many people today. I was curious, first of all, where did your interest in not just studying loneliness, but resolving the crisis begin?

[0:01:16] JN: Well, actually, it really began in an interesting way after 9/11, but I didn’t know that I was really focused on loneliness. I was actually very interested in the trauma of 9/11, as an experience for many people, particularly children. That’s what got me started, and I started The Foundation for Art & Healing, 501(c)3 nonprofit. The idea was to promote creative expression as a path to health and wellbeing. Really focusing on the power of the arts to really help us make sense of the world in positive, healthy, stress-reducing, trauma recovery-oriented ways.

As we started doing this work with the arts, we quickly found that many people with trauma and dealing with that stress were also quite lonely. They told us that the work we were doing with the arts to engage, and activate, and have kind of exciting conversations, storytelling, and so on, made them feel less lonely and more connected. That really got our attention, and that’s what launched Project UnLonely.

[0:02:19] PF: What is the connection between trauma and loneliness?

[0:02:22] JN: When you’re traumatized, so what is trauma? It’s a painful, hurtful injury or experience. As you can imagine, when you have something painful, and even if it’s something just like touching a hot stove, if you remember all those stories. You learn not to touch hot stoves, you back away from the threat of a hot stove. Many times, trauma is associated with engagement with other people. So, this could be everything from military trauma, to domestic violence, to the repeated marginalization of racism. This is all painful, and so, we withdraw. Almost anything that leads to trauma, in a way, does set you up for a kind of isolation, a kind of loneliness. That relationship is pretty clear. The real challenge, we’ll talk more about it, is how do you move from that loneliness towards a sense of connection.

[0:03:15] PF: Now, your organization started in 2016 and there was no clue at that point that the loneliness crisis was going to get so bad. In fact, as you mentioned in your book, 2020 was going to be a bang-up year for your organization. You had so much research that you were going to present, and so many speaking engagements, and then that all disappeared. Thank you, COVID. So, has your approach to loneliness changed at all since 2020, and how have you seen loneliness change in society?

[0:03:47] JN: All great questions. First, just for clarity, Project UnLonely isn’t its own organization. It actually is a project, it’s the signature initiative of The Foundation for Art & Healing, which is the organization. Although we formally launched Project on lonely in 2016, we actually started doing the work to understand loneliness and how the arts connect well before that, around 2011 or 2012.

Then, the question is, how did the pandemic change the approach to loneliness? I think what it did, in general, was shine a spotlight on it. As you mentioned, we had loneliness well before the pandemic, but somehow, it became part of all of our consciousness in a very different way. As you mentioned, I start my book, Project UnLonely: Healing Our Crisis of Disconnection. Very first page with how dramatically my world got upended in March 2020. Plans, relationships, teaching, travel, all of this just went on hold as we all tried to navigate this new reality, which forced us to have a kind of isolation to protect us and our neighbors from the virus. While isolation is different than loneliness, it’s highly associated with it. So, many people experience loneliness in a way they had not before.

[0:05:09] PF: I want to touch on that, what you just said, because we do equate isolation with loneliness. We have had an aunt who spent a lot of time alone, and she told me she’s like, “I have never been lonely.” Even though she was isolated, she didn’t feel lonely. What is the difference between isolation and loneliness? Because you can be in a crowd of people and still feel lonely.

[0:05:30] JN: Exactly. One of the real goals of my book is to demystify loneliness and humanize it. The first really important lesson, if you will, is that being alone is not the same thing as being lonely. Being alone is objective. It’s the absence of social connection. This can be, if you’re in a rural setting, or even isolated in an apartment in an urban setting, where, let’s say, you’ve got a disability, you can’t leave easily, or you’re fearful about going outside. So then, you are alone. But being alone can be such a positive experience of thoughtful reflection, consideration, the bigger world picture, contemplation. We have a high-class word for it. We sometimes call it solitude, and we do need solitude, but that’s different than being lonely.

Here’s what loneliness is. It’s subjective, it’s a feeling, it’s a mood state. It’s the difference between the social connections with other people that we would like to have and what we feel we do have. That gap is what we experience as loneliness. As you pointed out, you actually can be lonely in a crowd. It has nothing to do with whether there are other people around you. It’s whether you have the social connections you want. If you’re with other people, but don’t feel connected to them, you feel lonely. That introduces what I found, a really important observation, and I think, maybe your community will also, is that they’re different types of loneliness.

[0:07:10] PF: I’m so glad you brought that up, because you talk about three types of loneliness. I was like, I thought there was just loneliness. Can you dig into that and tell us about that?

[0:07:17] JN: Right. Well, I thought so too, until we actually started going out and talking about it. So, very simply, there’s psychological loneliness, which is, “Do I have a friend? Is there someone I can tell my troubles to?” That’s what many people think of when they think of loneliness. But then, there’s also the loneliness of systematic exclusion. We call that societal loneliness, because of race, or gender, or disability. Do people evaluate you in that very superficial characteristic and treat you differently, and, in a sense, withdraw from you in a systematic way? That’s very different than not having a friend. You could have plenty of friends, but if you feel, for instance, are in a racist workplace and it’s not safe to be in certain conversations, you’re going to experience loneliness in even though you might have friends.

The third type of loneliness, which I am very interested in, and it’s been around thousands of years, is where do I relate to the bigger world, the narrative of human experience. People with a religious orientation often call kind of the religious world, God, the universe. But you don’t have to be religious to have a sense of curiosity about how your life fits into the bigger story. What was here on the planet before I arrived? What will be here after I depart? Does my life have meaning, consequence?

If you don’t have solid grounding and answers to those questions, you can feel quite lonely. I think that’s the loneliness that’s affecting a lot of what we know is the loneliest demographic, 18 to 28 years old. They have plenty of friends, they’re connected on social media, but they’re wondering, “What am I doing? What’s my future? Does my life have meaning? Do I matter?” That could be quite distressing, and it’s its own form of loneliness.

[0:09:13] PF: Is the way that you address those different forms of loneliness, does that differ?

[0:09:20] JN: Absolutely. As someone who in the public health world, and through Project UnLonely, we’re trying to design interventions that are powerful for people, as you might imagine. If the loneliness is the loneliness of uncertainty about your meaning in the world, that’s very different than the loneliness of not having someone to talk to. So, if you think, “Okay. What do I need to feel less lonely?” One of the first important questions to ask yourself is, what type of loneliness am I experiencing?

In my book, I provide different questions we can ask, but they’re kind of what you might think. Do I enjoy relationships with others where I can have a chance to have authentic conversations? Or, are those missing from my life? If they’re missing from my life, how might I pursue having more of them? So, we lay out some of the strategies for that also. If your feeling of loneliness is uncertainty about your own positioning in the universe, of meaning, and is there purpose. Then, you might want to ask yourself more about how you want to relate to that, how you feel you can be more meaningful, and part of the bigger story. There’s some strategies I talked about in the book for that too.

[0:10:33] PF: How did you come up with these different strategies? Obviously, you’re a fabulous researcher. How did you come to understand those different types of loneliness, and this is what would resolve them?

[0:10:45] JN: It’s a really great question. The way, again, research works, science works, it’s driven by one thing. By the way, it’s the same thing that drives the arts, and that’s curiosity. As we started going out, and doing programs, and having conversations with hundreds of people about their loneliness and what their experience was, we began to see patterns and trends. It’s also important to know that of these three types of loneliness, you could have one type, two types, or three types altogether. That was the first thing, was the observation, awareness.

In terms of what works to impact it, some of that is based on psychology research in laboratory settings. We can study what seems to activate people, to embolden them, to be able to connect with others, and tolerate what I sometimes call discomfort of disclosure. Because if you reveal something authentic about yourself, and then someone says, “Sorry, you’re too boring. I don’t want to have a conversation with you.”


[0:11:48] PF: Or, “That’s just too much for me.”


[0:11:50] JN: Exactly. Or, “I can’t handle that.” Then, you might feel rejected, abandoned, critiqued, and that hurts. So then, you’re reluctant to do that. People, in a way, they connect with others, have to learn to tolerate the fact that you’re not always 100% successful, and to keep going just like – you have to explore, and try different things, and see what works for you personally.

[0:12:16] PF: That makes so much sense. There was a report that caught everyone’s attention. I think it was within the last year, and it’s really quoted quite a bit, and that is that loneliness is more dangerous than smoking. We hear that a lot, but we don’t hear the reasoning behind that. Could you explain to us why it’s so harmful, and also, physically, what loneliness does to us?

[0:12:41] JN: Absolutely. That work, that sound bite about being smoking. It can be as dangerous as smoking – loneliness can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Why is that? Because at its chronic extreme stages, loneliness actually changes how the brain functions, and it also increases inflammation, a real driver for illness, and it impairs immune system function. So, many of these excess deaths that lead to a 30% increase risk of a shorter lifespan are not because of suicides or overdose, drug overdoses. You could imagine loneliness could cause those, and it does. Those are factored out of these scientific analyzes.

Most of the deaths are cardiovascular, it’s heart attack, it’s stroke, sometimes it’s cancer death, or metabolic death. Disease and illness related to diabetes. It’s important to know that loneliness unchecked, unattended to, when it spirals out of control can be very, very hard on our physical systems too, not just our mental attitudes.


[0:13:50] PF: We’ll be right back with Dr. Jeremy Nobel, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about how you can beat the heat and get better sleep this summer. I’ve become such a big fan of Cozy Earth sheets for a lot of reasons. But as the temperatures rise, I’ve found one more reason to make them the only sheets I want to sleep on. Thanks to their cutting-edge temperature regulating technology, Cozy Earth’s bedding lets me stay cool and comfortable, even on the hottest days and nights. That means, I can wake up refreshed and ready for the day.

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[0:15:10] PF: I recall, even, probably about 20 years ago, having a friend who was going through a divorce and she said, “I’m lonely.” It struck me, because I think, that was the first time it actually had somebody say that to me, like it was almost a shameful thing to say, “I’m lonely.” What was that mindset and does any of that still remain?

[0:15:32] JN: We started Project UnLonely with three goals, Paula. One was to increase awareness of loneliness, and how toxic it can be for your health. The second, which is what we’re going to talk about, is to reduce the stigma that surrounds it. The third is to put these powerful imagination, creativity-fueled programs out in the community, so people can be better engaged. But let’s talk more about stigma.

Many people feel that if they’re lonely, it’s their fault, that there’s something about them, that they’re broken, they’re flawed, they’re incomplete, they’re inadequate. This is all just a social personal construction. That’s what they believe. The only good news about that is that, anything that’s socially and culturally constructed can be culturally reconstructed. So, I think we have an enormous opportunity. I first heard this idea from John Cacioppo, University of Chicago, who died, unfortunately. Shortly before the pandemic, it’s a real pioneer in understanding loneliness, and how it impacts not just our brains, but our behaviors. He said, “Why don’t we think about loneliness as a signal that there’s something we need, a biologic signal? Just like thirst is a signal, we need hydration. Loneliness is a signal that every one of us needs some degree of human connection.”

Obviously, most people don’t feel embarrassed or guilty about thirsty. Why do we feel embarrassed about being lonely? It goes back to this cultural assumption, in our cultural kind of matrix of, kind of how we put things together. People, as I said, feel that they’re flawed. What if we can shift that to just say, “Hey, it’s just a signal. What do I need now?” Human connection. “How do I find it? What type of loneliness do I have?” Then, you follow the reasonable paths to get better connected, either psychologically, or societally. or spiritually.

[0:17:30] PF: As people become more willing to explore that, how is that going to open up the world a little bit better? You reference Gen Z and how they are incredibly lonely despite being connected. How, as we change this conversation, do you see the world is going to open up?

[0:17:48] JN: All right. Here’s an experiment I do when I do public speaking now. I ask people, raise your hand if you know someone who is seriously and significantly lonely. Not if you’re lonely, but if you know someone. Hundred percent of the hands go up. Then, I say, “How many people have you heard say out loud, ‘I’m lonely.'”? Only 50% of the hands go up. If this were even five years ago, only 10% of the hands will go up. So, we’re making progress. We have a long way to go, but we’re making progress. So, that’s encouraging.

I think a lot of it is the younger demographic that I mentioned, the loneliest demographic, 18 to 28 do seem willing to talk about their mental health and so on, and take the risk of being judged, criticized, excluded. I admire that courage. What we’re trying to do with project and lonely is to actually also give them workshops. and programs that they can participate in, that are delivered not by us. We develop our programs and then they’re delivered by colleges, by libraries, by faith-based groups, by community centers. Because as our surgeon general calls for in the report, you mentioned, we need to create a culture of connection, where it’s not viewed as an illness or a flaw, loneliness. The connection is valued as something we celebrate at a personal level. We do it with friends, with family.

We actively look for opportunities to get together and have the, sometimes just very simple conversations that can still be quite meaningful. They don’t have to be deep, heart-to-heart disclosure conversation every time. It can be, “Hey, what’s lighting you up these days?” “Let me tell you.” “Oh.” It’s so important, these casual networks of human exchange, and not just social media, memes, and likes, and follows around short videos, but actual conversations in real life.

[0:19:54] PF: Can just the acknowledgement, even to ourselves that we’re lonely. Does that start changing things for us?

[0:20:01] JN: I think it does if it isn’t also associated with guilt and self-blame. So, to say, “I’m lonely because I’m a loser, and I’ve always been a loser”, is not a very helpful step forward. But to say, “I’m lonely.” But loneliness, and I truly believe this is the world’s most human feeling, the need for other people. It’s a signal that there’s something I need. How do I follow that signal and lead myself forward to a path of personal discovery? Because I think if we’re not comfortable knowing who we are, it’s hard to have authentic conversations, and friendships with others. But then, how do I feel part of a bigger world where, “Yes, I exist as a person, but I’m part of a much bigger story.” That often makes people feel better and feel connected.

[0:20:48] PF: We all feel lonely time to time. But how does someone know if it’s a problem, if it’s chronic loneliness, versus just something we’re going through right now?

[0:20:58] JN: That’s a really great question. I think part of that is really to pay a lot of attention to how you’re doing, feeling in kind of navigating the world. In the book, I call this the pyramid of vulnerability. Imagine a pyramid with three layers. The bottom layer is where we all are all the time. Every human being, as I said, can feel lonely from time to time, so that’s us. At that bottom layer, we should be trying to do things to build our social resilience, our social connection levels.

But yet, no matter who you are in your life and all of our lives, we will be faced with challenges that really do increase our risk of loneliness. That moves us to the middle tier. So, that could be loss of a loved one, the breakup of relationship, a new serious illness, whatever it is, loss of a job, concern about some future event like the national elections. That starts a kind of risk for a spiral, where you start to withdraw. That’s when it’s most critical to say, “Okay. Am I starting to feel more anxious? Am I having trouble sleeping? Am I having trouble concentrating? Maybe it’s because I’m lonely.” Ask yourself that.

Then, if you are, to go through this exploration, well, what type of loneliness is it. Then, follow the strategies to get connected. Because if you can interact at that middle tier of vulnerability, and then reduce the risk to spiral down into a good direction towards the base, you avoid spiraling up into the highest tier of loneliness. That’s where loneliness becomes a serious medical issue, where it is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day, where you have a 30% increased risk of heart attack. or stroke. or death from either. But we don’t have to get to that level if we can engage earlier and kind of reestablish balance, and a sense of comfort and connection, calm it down, so we’re back down to the bottom tier. Does that make sense?

[0:23:04] PF: It does. I wondered as you were talking, because once you reach that top level, it seems like it’s going to be most difficult to pull yourself out. What then should those around you – because if I’m your friend and I see this, it’s probably going to take some sort of intervention or outreach from me. Because once you hit that top, you’re a goner, but you’re in deep.

[0:23:27] JN: You are in deep, and that’s when you’re really most in need. As you point out, it’s often where you are least able to navigate your way out of it completely on your own. That’s where one of the things we can do in building a culture of connection, is to kind of keep an eye out on our friends, family, even neighbors, and not be their therapist, not be their parent, but be their friend. Bear in mind how even a simple kind word, when you’re passing by somebody on the street can totally change their day, can totally change their sense of optimism, of positive possibility, curiosity for that day. Stabilize them from what otherwise could be very difficult thoughts, sometimes thoughts of self-harm, and just kind of remind them that, “Hey, there’s some positive things going on in the world. I’m out here too, and you’re not alone, you’re not broken, and you’re not defective.”

It doesn’t require a therapist to have these daily reminders that we’re all human, we’re all connected. We all feel lonely from time to time, but we can be part of a larger and connected story. I think the arts and imagination, obviously, can give us kind of fun ways to tell that story of being connected, and then share those stories with others.

[0:24:42] PF: Yes. I love that your solution goes to the arts. Can you talk about the role that creative and artistic expression plays in combating loneliness? Then, give us some ideas for how people can use that in their own lives?

[0:24:56] JN: Absolutely. I think, first of all, it’s now really clear that arts and creative expression change the brain. When we change the brain, we change our minds. We change our minds, we change behaviors. Here’s how arts change the brain. One major way the arts and all the arts, by the way work. So not just the traditional arts like music, visual art, language arts like poetry, movement arts like dance, but culinary arts, cooking. The creative assembly of food ingredients, the taste, the smell, the sensation in your mouth as you eat fun food. So, that’s a creative form.

Textile arts, these have been around for centuries. Knitting, crocheting, quilting, these are wonderful creative activities. Then, gardening. Just bringing four things from nature, what a friend of mine calls the world’s slowest performance art form.


[0:25:54] PF: I love that.


[0:25:56] JN: These are how the arts can change us. They reduce cortisol levels, the stress hormone that puts us on edge, drives fight or flight, which means we’re always hyper vigilant. That does increase inflammation. It’s what alters the immune system. But the arts also increase levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, the so-called feel-good hormones. Then, very importantly, the arts also change how we make sense of the social world. What otherwise we might see as threats, like somebody walking towards us through the arts, particularly the ones that increase our sense of compassion, empathy, that person can look like an opportunity, someone I can have a conversation with.

That’s kind of the cascade of how changes in the brain from the arts, then literally change our levels of optimism, possibility. Sometimes, this is all in the positive psychology realm, as you know. But then, most importantly, it changes how we behave. We’re willing to smile at a stranger, we’re willing to take the risk of even a little piece of casual conversation in the grocery store. Then, if you take that risk and people respond, it starts moving your brain and mind in a more positive way, and the positive spiral happens. This is why the arts, I think, can be such a catalyst for connection.

[0:27:17] PF: I absolutely love that. Big question is, where do people start?

[0:27:22] JN: I think, if it’s around the arts, I think it comes back to curiosity. Explore the world in some creative form that you enjoy. If you don’t know what you enjoy, yet, try different things. Try drawing, try just kind of move with colored markers on white paper, and just say, “How am I feeling today? We have prompts and activities for this on our website. Imagine a time in your life that was meaningful to you. Then. don’t draw the experience. Let yourself feel the feelings associated with that time, and then try to draw the feelings using color and shade. There’s no wrong answer to these exercises. So. you get it all out on the page.

Then, in many of our workshops, what we do is, we do this as a group. We make the art on our own, but then we pair up and we tell our personal stories. That’s the second really powerful things the arts do. They invite and allow us to share our stories. Because almost every creative form, whether it’s a casserole, a chocolate chip cookie, or a Picasso painting is a form of a story. It’s a narrative, we’re trying to express something. So, the arts enable that.

Then, the last thing the arts do, and I particularly feel this with certain kinds of music, is they kind of transform us to a kind of awe and wonder about the world. I feel this in poetry also. I’m a poet, and reading a poem by who might no longer even be alive with us can still make me feel like I’m a small but important part of a very big and very wonderful story.

[0:29:03] PF: That’s fantastic. Now, we’re going to tell the listeners how they can find your website, how they can find your book. As you said, you have resources on the website so they can start doing some of these exercises. Your book has prompts and walks us through this. What is it that you want everyone listening to know and understand about loneliness?

[0:29:23] JN: Let me go back to some of the things we talked about. By the way, thank you for helping get the word out. The other thing we have that’s a lot of fun for people who aren’t immediately willing to, “Oh, I’m going to make some art.” Is, we use the power of the arts in the form of short films. We’re now working with Steve Buscemi, the celebrated actor and filmmaker. He’s an ambassador for what we call Project UnLonely Films. You come to our website and there’s a whole portfolio of short films that look at loneliness and some of the major social territories in which they exist. So, trauma, aging, illness, difference, the modern world. You get to explore loneliness through the lens, literally, of someone who’s making a film on it.

Then, if you watch it with a few other people, you can just say, “Hey, what did we just watch?” and have a conversation. Don’t overlook the opportunity. Come to our site, watch some of our films, sign up for our newsletter, so we’ll send you a little link every week or two with a film and some conversation starters. So, there are lots of ways we can move from being a little bit cautious in a defensive crouch, which we’re all in post-pandemic, to something a little bit more open-hearted, a little bit more open-minded.

[0:30:40] PF: That is fantastic. The work you’re doing is amazing. It’s very necessary, and I truly believe it’s going to help move that needle on loneliness in our society. So, I thank you for the work you’re doing, first of all. Then, secondly, I really appreciate your time. It was an honor to sit down with you and talk about this. I know our listeners have gotten a lot out of this conversation.

[0:31:00] JN: Thank you. It’s my absolute pleasure, and even this conversation makes me feel more connected. So, thank you for that, too, Paula.


[0:31:08] PF: That was Dr. Jeremy Nobel, talking about loneliness. If you’d like to learn more about Jeremy, check out his book, Project UnLonely: Healing Our Crisis of Disconnection. Visit his website for resources or follow him on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for our weekly Live Happy newsletter. Every week, we’ll drop a little bit of joy into your inbox with the latest stories, podcast info, and even a happy song of the week. That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.



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