“Thank you for leading us to these places of comfort,” one participant said. “It helped me feel connected to a greater sense of being, which is so needed during these times.”

Her words echoed many of the participants’ sentiments in Finding Comfort, the first installment of the Hope Storytelling Project.

We were inspired to create the project, a series of virtual poetry workshops held in partnership with the Cambridge Public Library and the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, for a simple reason: to create community through poetry.

In this time of social isolation and uncertainty, the need for meaningful connections is more apparent than ever. The longer the pandemic continues, we, as a nation, are quickly realizing how there is a lack of tools to combat the growing feelings of loneliness. To combat this in our local communities, we decided to use poetry as a vehicle for connection: to cultivate a safe space where vulnerability is encouraged, different opinions are synergized, and sharing stories offers therapeutic reflection. Through the combination of introspective writing and open group discussions, we have built a model in which poetry can directly address feelings of loneliness.

One in four older adults, aged 50 to 80, report feelings of isolation, and over 60 percent of adults feel some degree of loneliness. Moreover, loneliness is linked to many physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating feelings of loneliness. Introducing mandated social isolation can induce trauma among those who are already suffering from chronic loneliness, and for those who haven’t experienced chronic loneliness such incidences are also rising. An April survey noted that a third of Americans report feeling more isolated than usual.

As we are forced to shelter, oftentimes alone, as over 35.7 million Americans, or 28 percent of all households, live alone, being able to foster a community, and to remain hopeful, are urgently needed. After all, strong social relationships can increase an individual's likelihood of survival by 50 percent. There have been calls for interventions, such as expanding access to telehealth for mental health care, and increasing access to the internet and smartphones. Many organizations, internationally and domestically, have started offering services that connect volunteers with the elderly, who are most at risk for loneliness. However, one of the most powerful, and simple, ways of combating loneliness is communicating and listening to others with our undivided attention and open minds. 

Therefore, in designing the Hope Storytelling Project, we prioritized designing our workshops to do just that, to utilize poetry as a way to heal through individual reflection and group discussion. Divided into five parts (Finding Comfort, On Perspective, Approaching Emotion, Being a Witness and A New Hope), the Hope Storytelling Project seeks to guide participants through different forms of writing poetry, and ultimately, to uplift each other and create a sense of unity.

In our first workshop, Finding Comfort, participants shared childhood stories, memories about loved ones, and about the things they missed, such as hiking, going to work or simply hugging a friend. We crafted the workshop in three parts: a visualization exercise, discussion of a poem, and individual writing and reflection time, with group discussion after each part. We provided prompts that asked participants to recall places or things they were grateful or thankful for. In leading discussions, our questions always attempted to evoke emotions of comfort, familiarity and gratitude. And in the span of an hour, the virtual space felt noticeably more tight-knit, warmed by shared poems and experiences. As we closed, many participants noted how this workshop effortlessly offered the space to simply write, listen and connect.

The bonds of connection formed, and the therapeutic healing that many individuals experienced in our first workshop of the Hope Storytelling Project reaffirmed our belief that creative expression and open sharing cannot just create a community but also strengthen our sense of connection to each other and to ourselves.

It is time to recognize how powerful creative expression, through mediums such as poetry, can be in directly addressing loneliness and social isolation. A literature review conducted in 2010 of over 100 studies regarding the use of the arts to heal concluded that creative expression improved health by lowering depression and stress while boosting healthy emotions. But now, during this pandemic, there are not enough voices in the current media or literature about the importance of creative expression and sharing.

Unprecedented times call for innovative solutions, and we believe all aspects of poetry—reading, writing and sharing—can serve as an incredible antidote to loneliness.  In times like these, poetry challenges us to imagine and to consider our journeys within the collective landscape, and we can use this to heal and to create meaningful communities. Poetry can be a welcoming medium of solace and beauty, reminding us of how we were all irrevocably connected, even in isolation.

If you are interested in learning more about the Hope Storytelling Project, or want to collaborate or partner with us to bring this creative project into your own community, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact David (dxiang@college.harvard.edu) or Alisha (alishayi@college.harvard.edu).