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Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH
Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH

Navigate Holiday Loneliness with Creativity and Connection

Creativity helps us connect with others during this challenging holiday season.

The holidays this year are going to be a challenge for all of us. As we inch towards the end of 2020, we’re collectively burdened by uncertainty, loss, and sadness. How can we make sense of, let alone celebrate, the most disruptive year of our lives?

Because of COVID-19, more than a quarter of a million people are no longer here to celebrate with us, and millions have lost their jobs, heightening family stress and anxiety. Moreover, the national psyche has been wounded by tragedies caused by systemic racism and unresolved tensions from the most divisive election season in living memory.

And yet, despite these tough times, this holiday season offers us an opportunity to rebuild the true meaning of the holidays and to connect authentically, to embrace hope, and to heal as individuals and community.

It’s important to note that the pandemic is amplifying what we have seen in past holiday seasons. Over the last few decades, the blatant commercialization and forced joyousness have created a sense of obligation to be “merry and bright” that leaves many feeling marginalized, alienated, and inadequate. As I’ve noted here before, insidious holiday loneliness was already at epidemic levels in previous years.

And according to Cigna, a leader in addressing loneliness in the workplace and in the community, loneliness in non-holiday times burdened over 61 percent of adults even before the pandemic. Now the numbers are likely far higher. But what’s also increasing is the social dialogue around loneliness—we’re more willing to name it, to admit to it, and to more openly navigate it. For me, that acknowledgment of loneliness is a cause for celebration. No matter how steep the hill is, we can climb it together!

Perhaps through this pandemic, we have an opportunity to course-correct the commercialization of the season. We won’t have large, loud parties, and we won’t be surrounded by the familiar traditions we typically seek comfort in. Instead, this year, we’ll have a chance to listen for the quiet, maybe even silent, moments of love. We can embrace this as a chance to savor the intimate opportunities for gratitude, find subtle signs of joy, and pursue authentic connection with others and ourselves.

Bottom line: You do not need to be lonely this holiday season, no matter how unusual it may be. Let’s use social distancing and physical isolation mandates as a chance to shift the gears of our holiday celebrations towards achieving greater levels of intimacy and connection than recent years have offered.

Here are three important ideas and simple activities that can enable inspired and celebratory joy—all while still allowing you and your loved ones to navigate COVID-19 safety precautions.

Source: cottonbro/Pexels
Connect Authentically and Spread Cheer Creatively
Source: cottonbro/Pexels

1. Connect Authentically and Spread Cheer Creatively

Take time to make deep, meaningful connections with loved ones. Don’t just check in with well-intended but “off-the-shelf” greetings and gestures. Instead, show and share how you feel.

For some ideas, peruse tutorials for handmade card inspiration from Buzzfeed, Country Living, and HGTV. Or maybe think about stress-reducing recipes so you can share a special treat with loved ones. Or pen a few lines on a page imbued with special meaning, a poem, or even a Haiku.

It’s hard, but you can also honor and celebrate the relationships with those that are no longer here to celebrate with us this year. Write a letter, reflect on a memory, or make a piece of art to express how their loss makes you feel. Give yourself the time and space to experience those feelings of past connection, cherish them, and allow yourself to feel less alone because of them. Although rooted in the past, your emotions are no less real, nor are healing opportunities when fully embraced.

2. Volunteer With Purpose

Think of people burdened by a difficult or challenging circumstance, like discrimination and prejudice, being a family caregiver, homelessness, or income insecurity. How can you get involved and help make a difference?

Serving others in a mood of joy and caring not only makes you feel less lonely but is good for your health in many ways. Look for volunteer opportunities in your area, and if you can’t join your community in-person, participate in some rewarding virtual volunteer activities. You benefit from being connected, and your community benefits from your contributions—a double win for the holidays!

3. Build Upon the Relationship With Yourself

In tough times like these, a solid and secure sense of who you are, what matters most to you, and how best to achieve your goals not only reduces stress but also increases health and well-being. Writing or making art offers one way to reflect on your thoughts and feelings to better understand yourself. Other ways to achieve balance and self-awareness can be gained through regular use of digital mindfulness and health apps, like Happify and Calm, that offer insights, guidance, and specific exercises that can refresh and inspire. Above all, don’t let the holidays distract you from connecting to the person that means the most to you: yourself!

One of the most profound and encouraging realizations you’ll find from these activities is that being more aware and creative can make real and important differences in your sense of connection. Purposefully done, meaningful projects can foster empathy and compassion for others and for ourselves. As you explore your own personal meaning of the holidays, I hope you’ll find a sense of peace, joy, and connection.

Happy Holidays!


For more inspiration to help you navigate the holiday season creatively, The Foundation for Art & Healing is providing a free “Holiday Activity Kit.”

About the Author
Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH

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.