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Loneliness can affect physical and mental health. An expert shares ways to combat it this holiday season

The holiday season can be a time for 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 caused many people to physically distance from family members and loved ones for the last three years. Many may be choosing to keep their distance again this year during the "tridemic" of flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

A 2021 study from Morning Consult found that 58 percent of Americans are lonely. Some are lonely by circumstance and others by choice, but Dr. Jeremy Nobel, who teaches a class on loneliness at Harvard, says societal expectations play a role in loneliness during the holiday season.

"It's not just the isolation — it's the expectation that's created by culture, by advertising that the only normal way to be in the holidays, the only way to access joy and celebration is to be with others," Nobel told the 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 come from experiencing those feelings.

"What's only recently come to light is that loneliness won't just make you miserable, it'll kill you. And not just from suicide or drug overdose, but from heart disease, cancer or other kinds of physical ailments," Nobel said. "It turns out that loneliness increases risk of early death by 30 percent — as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day."

Though loneliness is experienced widely across Americans, it disproportionately affects younger people, people of color and low-income individuals, according to the Cigna study. The study found that 79 percent of adults aged 18 to 24 report feeling lonely, in comparison with 41 percent of seniors aged 66 and older. Nobel says that social media is a big factor in why younger generations experience loneliness at higher rates.

"It's very performance-oriented when you think about it. You're continually putting yourself out into the world as if you're on stage," he said. "Now, there's nothing wrong with occasionally being on stage, but when you're always on stage, that kind of forces almost a separation from your performance state and your authentic state."

Understanding the difference between being lonely and being alone is important, Nobel said. While the latter can enhance your health and confidence because it allows you to explore who you are and how you fit into the world beyond comparisons to others, the former is what often happens at the holidays.

"Being lonely is a very specific feeling of something missing, and what's missing is the sense of connection to people at the level that you want to have that connection and in that gap between the social connections you aspire to and 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 troubles with, while existential or spiritual loneliness involves questioning your place in the universe or whether your life makes a difference.

Regardless of which type of loneliness a person is experiencing, Nobel says that connection with oneself is important to growing connections with others.

"Often the path to connect with others starts with connecting to yourself. To give yourself the room, to be authentically curious about what matters to you in the world, what you're interested in," he said. "And as you move towards that and explore that, it often opens up channels to connect with other people who have similar curiosities and similar interests."

Nobel launched and leads Project Unlonely at the Foundation for Art & Healing, which promotes creative arts as a way of exploring curiosities and creating connections.

"You can express that curiosity in the made object, whether its a drawing, a poem, or even a cheesecake that you then bring to your next-door neighbor," he said. "That made object is something that can then invite conversation and [it is] those conversations and their authenticities that connect us."

If you are experiencing loneliness this holiday season, Project Unlonely has a variety of resources available.

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