What makes for an happy expatriate?

To what can we attribute an expatriate’s happiness? Is it the country they live in? The culture they’re immersed in? The comfort of life? The climate? Status? Safety and security? Leisure opportunities? Work opportunities? What makes an expatriate happy?

Of course, this varies from expatriate to expatriate. Some like warm climates, while others swear by mountains and snow; some like Africa, while others prefer Latin America or Asia; some are attached to their status and their work, while others seek discovery or volunteer work… but are these really the factors that will influence an expatriate’s happiness?

In this article, I offer you several suggestions based on research into the science of happiness!

In part, yes of course, an expatriate’s happiness depends on these factors. However, according to solid research in positive psychology, only 10% of our happiness is influenced by external circumstances (see my article: Do you know the happiness formula?) They have shown that 50% of our happiness is genetic… and above all, that 40% of our happiness is totally under our control. We can influence this 40%! How can we do this? This research has highlighted the factors that promote well-being and personal fulfillment.

In concrete terms, what makes an expatriate happy? Here are some suggestions, adapted to the specific needs of expatriates, inspired by positive psychology research and my own personal and professional experience.

Happy expatriates…

… know exactly who they are.

Expatriation is a major life transition (see my article “Expatriation is a major life transition“) that generally involves a major identity crisis. It forces expatriates to put an end to who they were before, and to recreate themselves. This is a reality for all expatriates, and even more so for accompanying spouses, who have often had to leave a job and a status that they will not necessarily find again while abroad.

Happy expatriates understand and know exactly who they are, here and now: their values, strengths, needs, desires, qualities, passions, beliefs, fears, thoughts, and emotions. This is essential: it’s this understanding that will enable them to create the changes they need to bounce back and fully blossom in their expatriation.

… have life goals.

Because expatriation is full of uncertainty and change, many expatriates can’t see themselves 5 or 10 years down the road. However, happy expatriates have a long-term vision; know what they want, where they are going, what their goals are and how to achieve them… regardless of external circumstances such as changes, uncertainties, career, or life transitions. It’s these clear, concrete objectives that will enable them to make the right choices, seize opportunities, find solutions, and overcome the obstacles they encounter. Above all, it’s this long-term vision that will enable them to achieve their life and career goals…and bounce back well in the face of change.

…. have found their rightful place.

Once they know who they are and what they really want, happy expatriates can find their personal and professional rightful place. They know how to give meaning to what they do, how to create the right balance for a fulfilling expatriation, and how to feel sure of their choices and decisions, here and now. 

This is a crucial point. I myself have experienced three almost simultaneous transitions: when I became a mother (which totally turned my life upside down); when I decided to leave the humanitarian sector in search of a job with as much meaning; and then when I was thrown into this brand new status of accompanying spouse (a total novelty after 13 years of expatriation as an employee at the time)! That was the most delicate transition in my life and career. I went through a long phase of questioning and doubts, until I was able to deepen and clarify who I was and what I really wanted. Everything then became much simpler. I found my place, and this totally changed the way I approached my life, my expatriation and enabled me to put in place what I needed to achieve my full potential. 

…. live in the present.

Expatriation is often experienced as a parenthesis, which makes it difficult to anchor oneself in the present. It’s common that instead of living in the present, we find ourselves either dwelling on the past and regretting what we don’t have here; or projecting ourselves into the future and anticipating what it will be like there, worrying about what we don’t know yet. Yet living in the present is one of the keys to happiness.

Happy expatriates deliberately focus on the present. They embrace what’s here and what’s happening, and savor as much as possible of the good things in everyday life. They make sure to enjoy what their current expatriation has to offer, to be physically and mentally present to the experience.

…have an open mind.

Expatriation is all about the unexpected and the multiple changes. Happy expatriates have an open mind. They’re curious. They’re not afraid to make mistakes, persevere despite obstacles and bounce back from failure. They love to discover and learn. They choose to approach events with curiosity and without preconceptions, rather than with judgment.

And they apply this same mindset to themselves. They’re curious about their own reactions, thoughts and feelings, and even accept that they’re imperfect!

… expresses gratitude.

Every expatriation has its advantages and disadvantages. Our brains tend to pay more attention to what’s not working and take for granted what’s positive in our lives.

Happy expatriates make conscious efforts to look for what works and savor it. They make a daily point of mentioning what they’re grateful for and not taking for granted what they already have. They may do this by keeping a gratitude journal, instituting an evening ritual at family dinner, or making sure they regularly expresses their gratitude for the positive things in their life.

… ignore the judgment from others.

There are many preconceived ideas about expatriates. Many people see only one side of expatriation. They believe that expatriates have everything to be happy: they earn a comfortable living, live in a nice house, have a cleaning lady, sometimes even a driver… they have the good life and nothing to complain about! It’s true that some expatriates are privileged, but they don’t all have this status and this comfortable lifestyle. And even for privileged expatriates, this doesn’t erase the difficulties associated with expatriation: the distance from family, the frequent changes, the constant need to adapt, the absence of social networks, landmarks, and support systems. Stereotypes are often all the stronger for accompanying spouses, who always seem to have to justify the fact that they don’t work… even though it’s often not their choice and, for some, it’s their greatest frustration, sometimes even a hindrance to their self-fulfillment.

Happy expatriates don’t take the judgment of others into account. They’ve managed to understand exactly who they are and what they want. They are confident in their choices, have found their place and no longer fear the gaze of others.

… have quality relationships.

Creating and maintaining quality relationships is one of the difficulties most often mentioned by expatriates. And this is surely no coincidence, because according to happiness research, the greatest indicator of life satisfaction is our relationships with others. Knowing we have friends we can count on has a huge impact on our well-being. 

Yet this is one of the great challenges of expatriation: on the one hand, to maintain good relationships with friends back home despite the distance, and on the other, to create good friendships in the hosting country. Not to mention the fact that multi-expatriates are constantly saying “goodbye” and “goodbye again”, making friends in all four corners of the world!

Happy expatriates have succeeded in creating quality relationships, by devoting time and effort… with a healthy dose of patience and letting go. They accept that their relationships with friends back home evolve with some developing closer, others deteriorating… but in the end, it’s also an opportunity to discover which ones really count. They have also succeeded in building a local network, approaching these new relationships with an open mind, a great deal of curiosity, a desire to learn and to discover other ways of developing relationships that count.

Above all, happy expatriates start by being their own best friend. They give themselves time, patience, kindness, and compassion. They know it’s not easy, but they believe in themselves and know they can cultivate quality relationships here and there.

… feel responsible for their own happiness.

As mentioned above, according to positive psychology research, 40% of our happiness level is under our own control. This 40% includes our thoughts, emotions, and actions.  

The key to happiness is to understand that: what we think, feel, and do on a daily basis is what has a lasting influence on our happiness… which enables us to boost our expatriation.

A happy expatriate is one who knows deep down that, whatever the circumstances, he’s responsible for his own happiness. That’s easier said than done, but it’s very true. It’s up to us to choose our thoughts and actions in the face of what we live and experience. To achieve this, expatriates can equip themselves with the tools they need to strengthen their happiness muscle!

I’d like to end this article with Christophe AndrĂ©, who wrote “The only happiness worth having is that which is rooted in the seasons of our lives: all bumpy, irregular, unpredictable, but all the more delicious in the end, with a story that gives it content and flavor”. Christophe AndrĂ© goes on to say: “Can we really put it this way: I choose happiness? There are times in our lives when we can’t, when we have no choice but to fight for survival. But the rest of the time, we can choose to take care of our happiness and the conditions for its blossoming. Choose to facilitate it.”

What do you think? What makes a happy expat? Do you have any comments, reactions, or questions? Don’t hesitate to comment this article. 

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