Aaltje Bos was admitted to the master’s in health sciences degree in circumpolar health in 2013 to explore how mobile people experience and deal with loneliness, or the absence of a close emotional connection, in an environment that is culturally, geographically and socially different from their home countries.
‘Through my own experiences as a “trailing” expatriate spouse and through my work as a relocation and expatriate advisor for the City of Oulu, Finland, I´ve seen that cultural differences, communication problems, role ambiguity, powerlessness, extreme temperatures and a different work-life balance can be obstacles to a fulfilling and satisfying life’, says Aaltje.
Over the twenty-three years that she lived in Germany, Canada and Finland, among others, Aaltje, has experienced loneliness and seen loneliness in others but has never fully understood the essence of loneliness against the backdrop of a foreign country.
Asylum seekers, international students, missionaries, immigrants, and expatriates—nearly everyone who goes abroad—discovers that living abroad has its exotic limits and that cultural differences, lack of support and language problems can quickly cause feelings of alienation or loneliness.
During her research, Aaltje noticed how hard it was to talk about loneliness. ‘Several people simply denied ever having felt lonely. Nonetheless, loneliness is a normal human feeling; we deeply care what others think of us, but it is obviously hard for us to admit that we´re lonely’, she says.
According to Aaltje, loneliness cannot completely be dismissed as a private problem, as the socioeconomic context of the feeling plays a significant role as well. Countries or organisations differ in terms of welcoming, accommodating and accepting behaviours toward outsiders. Social interactions, which normally provide people with a sense of belonging, can also devaluate, reject or exclude groups or individuals, creating psychological discomfort, homesickness, loneliness or a sense of inadequacy.
Loneliness is not a new phenomenon. Experts believe that even the earliest human beings experienced loneliness. To survive as a species, our ancestors relied on social groups, not only for companionship but also for survival.
‘Loneliness can also result from early childhood experiences, such as bullying or other hurtful interactions, but it is an integral part of life. Sadly, people without a robust network are more vulnerable to loneliness or isolation and also more prone to heart disease, disrupted sleep patterns, depression and lower overall subjective wellbeing’, she states
The fact that the world is increasing in cultural diversity also means that culturally sensitive healthcare is needed, and this is why Aaltje will soon start a loneliness service agency that will offer courses on the prevention of loneliness and how to cope with this condition.
‘The program at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Oulu offered me everything I needed to gain expertise in loneliness and social isolation’, says the master of health sciences–holder who wants to serve as a bridge between communities and health-care institutions in order to make loneliness support accessible and culturally appropriate.
‘Loneliness is a universal phenomenon and can happen to each of us. With millions of people on the move for economic, academic or safety reasons, we should reach out to sufferers of loneliness. If I can use my knowledge to help even one person to overcome loneliness and, I´ll be happy’, she smiles.