Solving the Cultural Paradox of Loneliness

Luzia Heu

Research output: ThesisThesis fully internal (DIV)

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Are members of individualistic societies more likely to feel lonely? This seems intuitive because more people in such societies, for instance, renounce family life or live alone. However, although solitude and social isolation seem to increase loneliness, average loneliness tends to be lower in more individualistic, rather than more collectivistic, cultures. In this dissertation, we aim to resolve this “cultural paradox of loneliness” by examining how risk factors for loneliness may be influenced by cultural norms about social relationships (i.e., rules about what is commonly done in, or what should [not] be done in relationships). These define the standards that people compare their relationships to and steer how they relate to others, which can both influence loneliness. We report quantitative and qualitative studies among young and middle-aged adults in altogether 30 countries (e.g., Sweden, Portugal, Egypt, India), on which we base our theoretical explanation for the cultural paradox of loneliness. In the novel culture-loneliness framework, we suggest that, through less strict and less demanding cultural norms about social relationships, higher individualism may indeed make some people lonely because they end up alone or socially isolated. However, through stricter and more demanding norms about relationships, higher collectivism may, on average, make people even lonelier because they can less freely select fulfilling relationships, may more often feel that their relationships cannot meet expectations, or may experience social sanctions if their relationships do not conform to norms. These insights into culture- specific risks may help to develop culture-sensitive interventions against loneliness in the future.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Groningen
  • van Zomeren, Martijn, Supervisor
  • Hansen, Nina, Co-supervisor
Award date11-Feb-2021
Place of Publication[Groningen]
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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