Expat advice: The key to a happy expat life

Just because your body is here, doesn’t mean your mind is…

The two years I’ve spent living abroad have been a crash course in the emotional ups and downs that come with uprooting your life and starting again somewhere new, all with the lurking expectation of doing it again in a couple of years. This week I was compiling all my little tips about how to have a happy life as an expat no matter what your circumstance when I realized my advice was rooted in the same practice: mindfulness.

Though originally a tenet of Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness—much like yoga—has become much more mainstream. In its essence mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present, which allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. If new age-y terms freak you out, just think of it as being in the moment or living in the here and now. If you’ve read articles about disconnecting from technology, staying in the moment with your kids, or listening to your body to avoid over-eating, then you’re familiar with mindfulness.

Because life abroad doesn’t come with a built-in support system, expats can benefit from using this tool to refocus their thoughts. Keep reading to see four particular areas where mindfulness has helped me manage expat life.

Mindfulness helps you deal with the constant expiration date. Most corporate or government employed expats live their lives in stints of a few years at a time, depending on the length of their contract. And of course, your expat friends will be living on a similar rotation, meaning you may spend only a few months getting to know someone before saying goodbye.

My first months in Bogotá were spent learning Spanish in a local language school, where I didn’t allow myself to become attached to any of my fellow students, precisely because most were only passing through. Not only did I keep myself isolated, but I also missed out on who knows how many cool experiences.

The other way the calendar can cause problems in expat life is with hosting visitors or visits to your native country. My first return trip to the U.S. was incredibly disruptive because I stopped living my everyday life to anticipate and plan my upcoming trip. Not only does that stop your normal routine, but there’s also a good chance that those inflated expectations will not be met. (Check out this post for a few tips on your first visit home)

In both of these scenarios, redirecting your thoughts to your current home will help you continue living there. If you become attached to someone who’s leaving in six months, enjoy that time. Pay attention to how often your mind drifts to your upcoming travel and if you see it becoming disruptive, acknowledge it but then find something in your present place to occupy you and help you focus on gratitude.

If you’re living in the moment, it’s ok to have a bad day. Around the three-month mark in Bogotá, I was afraid to admit that I was struggling in my new life. Somehow I saw an admission that I was having a hard time meant that I was unhappy. And if I acknowledged that, wouldn’t everything come tumbling down?

But that is flawed logic—just think of the times you’ve been driven crazy by kids or a spouse or your life but still loved it and wouldn’t change a thing. Whether good or bad, emotions are temporary and mindfulness encourages you to acknowledge what you’re feeling instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

Once I was able to get to identify where I was struggling to adjust to my new life, I felt more—instead of less—in control. What’s more, it led to a discovery that I was stagnating in the lowest part of the culture shock curve. The simple act of naming what you’re feeling has immense power to put it in perspective.

Use it to find a social media balance. Social media is a tricky thing for expats. On one hand, it’s a great way to share your life and keep in touch with those in your former home. On the other, we all know that FaceBook and Instagram are the highlight reel of people’s lives, slyly encouraging us to compare ourselves to others.

While checking in frequently may help expats until they can establish a community of their own, living on social media isn’t a sustainable way of life—it won’t help you settle in and the normal human mind can’t take that much emotional content without being mucked down with loneliness.

To walk the fine line between using social media to check-in or as a crutch, the folks at mindful.org encourage people to simply be aware of what they’re hoping to get out of looking at social media—do you genuinely want to catch up with what’s happening back “home” or are you looking to disconnect from your current feelings? If you find yourself sinking, it’s time to take a break. Better yet, pop over to your own posts and take a moment to remember all the incredible things you’ve done and positive experiences you’ve had.

Mindfulness helps you adapt to your new culture. After being in the expat community for a bit one of my biggest pet peeves is foreigners with an entitled attitude, thinking that Colombians should do things like [insert your home culture here]. Of course, the seemingly insignificant differences in ideas of space, efficiency, and time become huge when you’re faced with heaps each time you step out the door. The danger is when you let these little instances—each time a person is late, cuts across your path in the park or ignores you in a restaurant—become bricks keeping you from settling in your new home.

Acknowledging your new culture and accepting that there’s nothing you can do to change it takes some of the power out of frustration (maybe there are some deep breaths in there too). And training your brain to remember that there’s no wrong or right way to do something—another aspect of mindfulness—will keep you on that path as well.

These days, there’s so much talk about mindfulness because there are a hundred things clamoring for our attention in a given moment—it’s not just an expat problem!

What do you think about this? I’d love to hear what you’ve found helpful to keep up with the constant change of expat life.

5 thoughts on “Expat advice: The key to a happy expat life

  1. While I am not an expat, I think you say a lot of important things here. Being present eases the anxieties and other feelings that hold us back in many arenas of life. It’s a way of saying that today matters today, and the rest matters too, when it has its day. Nice post!

    1. I meant to add that one way I like to do this if I’m in a slump is to intentionally create things…meals, memories, journals, gardens…these created experiences bring you into the now and carry with you forward.

      1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Katie! Your idea of creating experiences is perfect, and I think I’ve done similar things in the past by planning something to enjoy the whatever place I’m presently in.

  2. Danielle, absolutely powerful insight to living a life of gratitude in “everyday” life. Being deliberate is a mind bending exercise to say the least. Thanks for taking us along in all your experiences.
    Keep on writing!!!!!

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