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Long-term loneliness is a widespread societal problem with huge consequences. Breaking down social isolation would seem to be the most obvious solution. But according to social psychologist Luzia Heu, this may not always be the case. Having an extensive, close social network will not always protect people from loneliness. Heu wants to see more attention being paid to individual and cultural differences.
Text: Gert Gritter, Communication UG
For her PhD research, Heu analyzed data on loneliness from 30 countries, ranging from Sweden to India and from Egypt to Portugal. Strikingly, it turns out more people seem to be lonely in countries with a collectivist, restrictive culture than in countries with an individualistic, liberal culture. This phenomenon is known as the ‘cultural paradox of loneliness’. It is diametrically opposite to the intuitive idea that people living in the midst of family, neighbours and acquaintances are rarely lonely. This, however, is a romantic image that is largely upheld in the individualized West. A close community can be suffocating. And if people become embroiled in conflicts or rows, they tend to feel misunderstood, shunned and lonely.
‘Cultural norms can influence which people feel lonely. If you deviate from the norm, you can feel misunderstood, be socially shunned or stigmatized. This is a recipe for loneliness, which can apply to LGBTI people living in traditional communities. Here’s another example. In one study, adolescents who didn’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend felt lonelier if they were living in the US than if they were living in a country like South Korea. At the beginning of the 20th century, elderly living alone in Great Britain felt much lonelier than at the end of the 21st century.’
‘The norms instilled in you by a culture are important, as are your own expectations, often resulting from these norms. Some people think that they are somehow lacking, or that they have failed. “I should be out with friends like EVERYONE else on a Friday night.” “I should have a partner and be married by now.” “My friends should always understand me.” But it is not just expectations. We mustn’t forget the genetic component. Some people are naturally more sensitive, which makes them more susceptible to loneliness.’
So how do you tackle loneliness? Heu: ‘It’s important to realize that loneliness is not a simple problem with one cause only. There is no one-size-fits-all intervention. Reducing social isolation by building up a buddy network, for example, can sometimes be effective, but not always. All forms of loneliness are “not in the same pot.” I sometimes advise people to view loneliness like we view sadness. There is not one reason for sadness, but there may be many different ones. You don’t just look for one solution. Look for the root of the problem. Is it cultural or individual? Various interventions are possible. Letting go of expectations. Changing your lifestyle. Finding people who are in a similar situation.’
Heu had been working on her research for a few years before the pandemic highlighted the theme of loneliness. As a result, she was inundated with requests for interviews as an expert in loneliness. Does she feel that she was in luck? ‘Haha, no, not at all. Not much changed for my research and the results are still the same. I didn’t specifically study the development of loneliness since March of last year. But I have no doubt that there will be long-term implications.’
Heu graduated in psychology in Vienna before coming to Groningen to follow a Research Master’s degree programme and do a PhD. During her studies, she became fascinated by cultural psychology. ‘I wanted to study something that is relevant to society.’ In March, she will take up a position as an assistant professor at Utrecht University. She is highly motivated to share the findings and insight that her research generated, and is setting up a website to offer lonely people information, advice and support. It will feature interviews with people who experience loneliness to show visitors to the site that they are not the only ones with these feelings.
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