Culture, Loneliness, and Documentary Film

Wealthy and safe, yet depressed and anxious. What appears paradoxical, is explained away easily in blog posts or magazine articles: we feel bad despite doing well because modern western societies with their individualistic cultures make us lonely (Orr, 2017; Whitley, 2017).

Indeed, loneliness – the feeling of being alone, cut-off, distant, or different from others (e.g., Russell, Peplau, & Ferguson, 1978) – seems to be detrimental to human health. For instance, loneliness relates to higher depressiveness, suicidal thoughts, obesity, elevated blood pressure, and earlier mortality (Cacioppo, Grippo, London, Goossens, & Cacioppo, 2015; Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). However, despite much evidence for a link between loneliness and health, we know little about how culture relates to loneliness. This is where our research comes in.


“The intuitive notion that individualism can put individuals at risk for loneliness might be correct after all.”


We tested the belief that individualistic cultures put us at risk for loneliness. Individualistic cultures are those in which personal attitudes or aims are prioritized over duty towards groups, and where being independent is considered important (e.g., Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2004). Surprisingly, past studies had found more individualistic countries to be characterized by lower average levels of loneliness (e.g., Lykes & Kemmelmeier, 2014), which is contrary to the intuitive notion that higher individualism should set at risk for loneliness. One possible explanation is that expectations from social – especially family – relationships are less demanding in more individualistic cultures, making members of these cultures less susceptible to loneliness, even if they are less socially embedded (Lykes & Kemmelmeier, 2014). However, these studies addressed the issue on national levels, comparing different countries. We, on the other hand, wanted to investigate whether this would also hold for individuals – that is, whether those who describe the immediate culture they live in as more individualistic feel less lonely. In contrast to earlier research, we found that, in four European countries, those who perceived that others in their city, town, or village were more individualistic actually felt lonelier (Heu, van Zomeren, & Hansen, 2018). Although these correlational findings do not tell us much about causality, they suggest that the intuitive notion that individualism can put individuals at risk for loneliness might be correct after all.


“In a qualitative research and documentary project, we will examine cultural differences in beliefs about, causes of, and ways of dealing with loneliness.”



Of course, members of modern western societies or individualistic cultures are not alone in feeling lonely. In fact, loneliness occurs all over the world and hence across cultures (Rokach, 2004). Nevertheless, we know little about whether meanings of loneliness are comparable across cultures – that is, whether people describe similar experiences (e.g., causes, emotions, beliefs, or coping strategies) when saying that they feel lonely. Given that cultures differ in how people think and go about social relationships (which are both important determinants of loneliness; Perlman & Peplau; 1981; 1984), one would expect loneliness experiences to differ as well and, indeed, the few studies that have examined meanings cross-culturally suggest cultural variation (Rokach, Orzeck, Cripps, Lackovic-Grgin, & Penezic, 2001). In a qualitative research and documentary project, we will therefore examine cultural differences in beliefs about, causes of, and ways of dealing with loneliness.


“We believe that this project can benefit a broader audience through the medium of film”


This is important as most psychological research has been conducted in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic; Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010a) countries, testing the ideas of WEIRD researchers. However, most people in the world are not WEIRD (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010b), implying that we may not know much about the psychology of a majority of the world’s population. To find out whether our existing theories and hence interventions can be applied to other cultural contexts, we thus need to also give voice to and study members of non-WEIRD cultures.

This project is not only important for science, but also for practice: we believe that it can benefit a broader audience through the medium of film. Loneliness often comes with feeling different from others, and is stigmatized in many cultures. To counteract both, we aim to compile stories of people who feel or have felt lonely in a documentary. Such a documentary could communicate both the sharedness and the heterogeneity of loneliness experiences: many people feel lonely, but their experiences are probably not the same.


“Does all of this sound interesting to you? Then there’s good news!”


Does all of this sound interesting to you? Then there’s good news! For this project, I invite international students (particularly those from Asian, South American, and African countries) to join me as research assistants on a trip to their home country. You would help with finding participants, translate questions into the local language (and answers into English), and conduct interviews/moderate group discussions. The duration of the stay will be two-three weeks. If you are interested in this unique opportunity to gain research experience in the field, please write an email to

Together we might be able to pave a way out of loneliness by contributing to loneliness research while using the medium of film to inspire new perspectives and coping strategies among lay people.


Image credit: photo by Luzia Heu.



Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A. J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 238-249.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010a). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010b). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature466(7302), 29.

Heu, L. C., van Zomeren, M., & Hansen, N. (2018). Lonely alone or lonely together? A cultural-psychological examination of individualism–collectivism and loneliness in five European countries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, advance online publication.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.

Lykes, V. A., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2014). What predicts loneliness? Cultural difference between individualistic and collectivistic societies in Europe. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(3), 468-490.

Orr, D. (2017, December 16). Modern life is lonely. We all need someone to help. Retrieved from

Oyserman, D., Coon, H. M., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2002). Rethinking individualism and collectivism: evaluation of theoretical assumptions and meta-analyses. Psychological bulletin, 128(1), 3-72.

Perlman, D., & Peplau, L. A. (1981). Toward a social psychology of loneliness. In R. Gilmour, & S. Duck (Eds.), Personal Relationships: 3. Relationships in Disorder(pp. 31-56). London, UK: Academic Press.

Perlman, D., & Peplau, L. A. (1984). Loneliness research: A survey of empirical findings. In L. A. Peplau & S. Goldston (Eds.), Preventing the harmful consequences of severe and persistent loneliness (pp. 13-46). Washington, DC, US: Government Printing Office.

Rokach, A., Orzeck, T., Cripps, J., Lackovic-Grgin, K., & Penezic, Z. (2001). The effects of culture on the meaning of loneliness. Social Indicators Research, 53(1), 17-31.

Rokach, A. (2004). Loneliness then and now: Reflections on social and emotional alienation in everyday life. Current Psychology, 23(1), 24-40.

Russell, D., Peplau, L. A., & Ferguson, M. L. (1978). Developing a measure of loneliness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 42(3), 290-294.

Whitley, R. (2017, July 28). Is an increase in individualism damaging our mental health? Retrieved from

Luzia Heu completed her PhD research under the supervision of Martijn van Zomeren and Nina Hansen at the Department of Social Psychology. In her research, she examines how cultural norms influence risk factors for loneliness through their impact on social relationships and expectations from social relationships. Next to her PhD research, she has conducted a film project about loneliness experiences in different cultures, writes poetry and movie scripts, paints, and dances.

Key references:

Heu, L. C., van Zomeren, M., & Hansen, N. Lonely Alone or Lonely Together? A Cultural-Psychological Examination of Individualism-Collectivism and Loneliness in Five European Countries (2019). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 780-793.

Heu, L. C., van Zomeren, M., & Hansen, N. (2020). Does Loneliness Thrive in Relational Freedom or Restriction? The Culture-Loneliness Framework. Review of General Psychology, Advance online publication.

Heu, L. C., van Zomeren, M., & Hansen, N. (2020). Far away from home and (not) lonely: Relational mobility in migrants’ heritage culture as a potential protection from loneliness. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 77, 140-150.

Heu, L. C. (2020). Solving the Cultural Paradox of Loneliness (Doctoral dissertation). University of Groningen.

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