Poetry can protect against impact of loneliness and isolation

PLYMOUTH, United Kingdom — Whether you prefer Ginsberg to Shakespeare or “Ozymandias” over “Song of Myself,” noteworthy new research suggests adding a bit more literature to your life can protect against loneliness. Scientists at the University of Plymouth have found that reading, writing, or simply sharing poetry can help people cope with isolation or feeling lonely and reduce anxious feelings or depressive thoughts.

Conducted in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the study reports that many of those who shared, discussed, or wrote poetry as a way of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic enjoyed a “demonstrable positive impact on their well-being.”

To reach these findings, the study authors surveyed 400 people. The poll revealed that poetry proved helpful for people dealing with common mental health symptoms, but also benefitted those suffering from grief. The survey included registered users of the website poetryandcovid.com (now archived as poetryandcovidarchive.com), which was a website for sharing and reading poetry during the pandemic.

Over half of respondents (51%) said that reading and/or writing poetry helped them manage feelings of loneliness or isolation. For a further 50 percent, poetry helped with feelings of anxiety and depression.

Over a third (34%), meanwhile, felt that engaging with the website helped lower their anxiety, and 24 percent said that it helped them “feel better able to handle my problems.” Another 17 percent expressed that it enabled them to deal with bereavement issues, while 16 percent reported the site helped with ongoing mental health symptoms.

“These results demonstrate the substantial power of poetry,” says principal investigator Anthony Caleshu, Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth, in a media release. “Writing and reading poetry, as well as engaging with the website, had a considerable positive impact on the wellbeing of the participants during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“In addition to supporting their health and wellbeing, the website informed social and cultural recovery and offered an understanding of how poetry was being used as a mode of discourse during the pandemic. It now provides an historical archive for how people around the world used English language poetry to navigate the crisis.”

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Over 100,000 people from 128 countries visited the site, which featured more than 1,000 poems by more than 600 authors at its peak. Most content was submitted by the writers themselves.

Poetry has been a lifeline throughout the pandemic, both reading and writing it, (sometimes a strong rope and other times a thin little string),” writes one participant in the study.

“I’m looking to submit some poetry related to my father’s recent passing, which was due to COVID-19. I want to capture some of the conflicting emotions I’ve been feeling since news of (several) promising vaccines have been reported so close to his death. I hope the piece will connect with others who have lost loved ones, but also provide hope for those who are isolated and waiting for loved ones to return home. This is my first piece of poetry,” another person adds.

“It’s likely that tethering poetry to a community-building platform, in this case the website, has had a particularly positive effect on the relationship between poetry and wellbeing, as it’s a way of bringing people together, the ice already having been broken,” says co-investigator Dr. Rory Waterman, Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Nottingham Trent University.

“It’s also likely that other modes of creative and expressive writing – trying to find the right words for experience or circumstance, and then sharing them reciprocally – may positively affect people’s health in a similar way. The wider arts, including visual and performing arts, likely have comparable potential.”

“This study shows that creativity, coupled with the opportunity for safe and supportive explication and discussion, can help people endure difficult times and circumstances by providing outlets through which they can work at making sense of experience,” Waterman concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Poetry Therapy.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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