Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH

Being Unlonely

How to Be UnLonely During the Holidays

Coping during a season of high expectations.

Posted Nov 29, 2017

Why do we get lonely during the holidays? Let’s think about why we get lonely at all. Most people experience loneliness as a gap between closeness with friends or partners they would like to have or the family with whom they’d like to be more connected and what they are actually experiencing. People who are especially likely to feel lonely might be those who are widowed, divorced, empty nesters, or “elder orphans”1 with no adult children. Teens and young adults can be vulnerable to loneliness as well2. In fact, loneliness can burden anyone who is isolated or distressed because of life circumstances and challenges like those with major illnesses3, the disabled4, veterans5, caregivers6, minorities7, and immigrants8.

So that gap between what you expect, what you desire, and what you feel you have is often what we call loneliness. This problem is widespread. The AARP loneliness study found that over one-third of the respondents were categorized as lonely9. Not only that, but the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled in recent decades, according to research published in The American Sociological Review10.

Then think about the holidays. They drive up enormous expectations through media, through advertising, through history and culture, about how connected we should be, and how that’s the norm. Those increased expectations set us up to feel as though we’re falling short of what we should be having for connection. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the Bing Crosby perennial favorite, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,”11 one of the holiday songs that blares through loudspeakers while we shop during the holidays. He sings about his expectations—snow and mistletoe and presents and being “where the love-light gleams”—but ends with a heartbreaking lyric that is the epitome of holiday loneliness: “If only in my dreams.”

Yet we can feel lonely even in the midst of many people who are enjoying the merriment of the season. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in the childhood classic The Little Prince: “Where are the people?” “It’s a little lonely in the desert…” “It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” said the snake.

Holiday loneliness, whether you’re actually alone or alone in a crowd, can take a toll. Research presented by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in August of 2017 in Washington D.C. showed that loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity12.

Fortunately, though, the longstanding belief that the rate of suicides spikes during the holidays turns out not to be true, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)13. However, the American Heart Association reports that the risk of heart disease is significantly higher during Christmas14, and a Cedars-Sinai Neurologist warns of the increased risk of stroke during the holidays15.

All of that said, is there anything you can do to offset holiday loneliness? Yes! The good news is that there are steps you can take to increase your sense of connection to others during the holidays. Here’s one way to think about it. Maybe the season is a time to think about what the holidays really mean: a time of celebration, a time of reviewing important events and feelings throughout the year, a time to think about the people you care about.

Beyond that, at the Foundation for Art & Healing (FAH)16,17 where I’m the founder and president, we strongly encourage everyone to create and share art in order to assuage feelings of loneliness. Science backs us up, as evidenced by these four scholarly studies: “Creative activities promote day-to-day wellbeing,”18 “At Any Skill Level, Making Art Reduces Stress Hormones,”19 and “Making Art Activated the Brain’s Reward Pathway.”20

Why not try your hand at writing a poem, making a collage or a drawing, or taking a photograph? Then you can reflect on what you have made as an expression of your relationship to the holidays. After that, see if you can you can share what you made with someone, either in person if possible or perhaps via FaceTime or Skype or on social media. Through that sharing of an important object or song or poem that you’ve made, you can establish a connection and be what we at FAH call UnLonely for the Holidays.

Try it! We’ve set up a page with a terrific set of prompts and information.  Whether you are actually alone or are feeling lonely among others, make art and share your efforts with others. You’ll be more connected, and everyone will benefit.

Here’s to a fulfilling “UnLonely” holiday season for you and yours, and all of those whose lives you touch.

Sondra Forsyth contributed to the research and writing of this blog.


1. Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research Volume 2016 (2016), Article ID 4723250, 11 pages

2. Vanhalst, J., Soenens, B., Luyckx, K., Van Petegem, S., Weeks, M. S., & Asher, S. R. (2015). Why do the lonely stay lonely? Chronically lonely adolescents’ attributions and emotions in situations of social inclusion and exclusion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(5), 932-948.

3. Lonely at the bottom: a cross-sectional study on being ill, poor, and lonely. Article Title: Lonely at the bottom: a cross-sectional study on being ill, poor, and lonely. Journal Title: Public Health. CrossRef DOI link to publisher maintained version:

4. Group Treatment of Physically Disabled Adults by Telephone Ron L Evans ACSW, Harold R. Fox MSW, Denise O. Pritzl ACSW & Eugen M. Halar MD Social Work in Health Care Vol. 9 , Iss. 3,1984

5. Title: Loneliness Among Older Veterans in the United States: Results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. Author: Philipp Kuwert,Christine Knaevelsrud,Robert H. Pietrzak. Publication: The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Publisher: Elsevier. Date: June 2014

6. Ekwall, A. K., Sivberg, B. and Hallberg, I. R. (2005), Loneliness as a predictor of quality of life among older caregivers. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 49: 23–32. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2004.03260.x

7. Victor, C.R., Burholt, V. & Martin, W. J Cross Cult Gerontol (2012) 27: 65.

8. Loneliness: A Predictor of Health Perceptions among Older Korean Immigrants. Oksoo Kim. Psychological Reports Vol 81, Issue 2, pp. 591 - 594

9.  Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+ by G. Oscar Anderson, AARP Research, September 2010

10. Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, Matthew E. Brashears. American Sociological Review. Vol 71, Issue 3, pp.353- 375. First Published June 1, 2006.

11. Bing Crosby - I'll Be Home For Christmas (1943)

12.  Advancing Social Connection as a Public Health Priority in the United States. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Brigham Young University, Theodore F. Robles, University of California, Los Angeles, David A. Sbarra University of Arizona. American Psychologist, Vol. 72, No. 6, 517–530

13. Holiday Suicides: Fact or Myth? CDC.

14. Heart-related deaths spike at Christmas.  AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS.

15. Cedars-Sinai Neurologist Warns of Increased Risk of Strokes During the Holidays.

16. Foundation for Art & Healing UnLonely Project.

17. The UnLonely Film Festival from the Foundation for Art & Healing.

18. Creative activities promote day-to-day wellbeing: Otago research. Thursday, 24 November 2016. Department of Psychology. University of Otago.

19.  At Any Skill Level, Making Art Reduces Stress Hormones. By: Frank Otto. June 14, 2016.

20. Making Art Activates Brain’s Reward Pathway – Drexel Study. By: Frank Otto. June 13, 2017.

About the Author

Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, is a Harvard Medical School faculty member and head of the UnLonely Project, an initiative to combat the public health epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

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