Is expat life a shortcut to happiness?


Does expat life really make you healthier, wealthier and happier? is the title of an article highlighting a study of 1,000 people, half of which have lived abroad and half of which haven’t. This particular study shows that those who’ve lived abroad were more satisfied with their lives than those who haven’t (albeit only slightly).

I agree in theory, but don’t think that living abroad is some kind of magic cure-all or ticket to enlightenment. Flip through some of the posts here and you’ll get a healthy serving of the downsides of expat life—loneliness, identity issues, struggling to find a new normal or to redefine your ideas of home. One way that expat life does point you in this direction, though, is by throwing a bucket of cold water on the cozy complacency that comes from living in the comfort of your native culture.

I’m a list-y gal and have always gotten a sense of satisfaction by tallying my tasks for the day. Equating productivity with happiness, talk about a USA cliché. Even though I knew better, about three months into life in Bogotá I hit a brick wall when I ran out of the done-in-a-day variety of to-dos. We were unpacked and everything was in order, right down to the bi-annual dentist appointments. My old formula stopped working because the only things left were, well, hard: learn Spanish, make friends, live life normally instead of as if we were tourists.

Happiness is not an ifthen statement, something I knew in theory but not in practice as I clung to it in order to get my feet on the ground in Bogotá. Moving abroad was a crude reminder that the short-lived, hedonic happiness derived from the external would only get me so far in my new life. I’ve had to let go in more ways than one. Keep reading for a few of the externals that once let go, can have a big impact for expats.

Letting go of…control

My Colombian visa expires about three months from today and all we know for sure is that we won’t be staying in Colombia. The worry is there, a hibernating animal that occasionally turns over, but it’s not consuming. Two years ago I would have been in a doctor’s office requesting a Xanax prescription to combat the anxiety welling from my need to plan, prepare, and organize every detail of this upcoming change. While I’m glad I knew enough of what kind of things we’d have a hard time finding in Bogotá, that comforter set couldn’t make me happy or help this place feel like home.

In place of a scrabbling to consume every fact and detail about our next city, I’m taking this recently received advice from a seasoned expat: pick any five things that are important to you—your non-negotiables—and let everything else go. Trying to organize your new life in the span of a “look-see weekend” is daunting. But, if you can condense what is most important to you and your family into a few must-haves, you’ll have a much easier time finding your place without being overwhelmed. Considering what I’ve heard of the destinations which are circulating for our next assignment, the only thing I’m hoping for so far is to find an apartment on a floor either above or below the smog layer. One down, four to go.

Letting go of…things

Expat life brings a new angle to stuff. My first visits back to the U.S had a bit of a frenzied feeling when it came to things since I was preoccupied with the idea of bringing back what I couldn’t find in Bogotá: lemon juice, spices (where’s all the thyme?), natural peanut butter. But then I ran out, and life went on. You don’t know what you don’t need until you try and live without it. It’s incredible how much more you can focus on enjoying the people you’re visiting when you’re not worried about when you’ll go to Target.

I touched on materialistic culture a bit last week, the effects of which I didn’t fully understand until I’d lived apart from it. There aren’t commercials on Netflix and in everyday life if I’m not trying to translate advertisements they whiz right by me. It’s incredible how much energy gets sucked up by wanting. Not to say that I don’t still love shopping, but seeing different versions of success, an absence of advertising—combined with the limits of an air shipment container—have helped switch my focus away from accumulating.

And maybe it’s just me, but there’s something so refreshing about purging old belongings and setting up shop somewhere new. I grew up moving a lot and have always relished unpacking and arranging my things, one of the only things I’m looking forward to as we say our goodbyes to Colombia.

Letting go of…comparisons

Happiness doesn’t come from comparing yourself to others; in fact, I don’t know what could kill genuine joy more quickly. I’ve always tried to blend in instead of stand out—I’ve mentioned before that observing and acting accordingly has been my social MO. However, I was like a fish out of water in Bogotá because I look, talk, and come from a different culture than most of the people I’m now friends with. Even within the expat community, Californians and Texans can speak different languages.

Speaking of things I no longer have, add a job to that list. I know, must be nice. But before you assume I happily spend my days shopping and lunching, consider how integral work is for Americans—it’s the question that follows nice to meet you at any cocktail party. Managing directors, missionaries and everyone in between, there are so many different directions and standards of success that there is no one measuring stick.

Letting go of fitting-in only bodes well for expats, because you’ll always be moving between worlds. Cody and I are traditional in some ways (we’re married and occupy expected gender roles), but we don’t have kids, own homes or cars or some of those other American Dream trimmings. No matter if you’re in your new culture or the old, not worrying about how you measure up—but rather that you’re content—will help you maneuver seamlessly among the two.

By no means is this list complete and I know I’ll only keep adding to it as we continue to live abroad. As always, feel free to share what you know about happiness (no matter what) in the comments below!

8 thoughts on “Is expat life a shortcut to happiness?

  1. Great post! You really exemplify the essence of happiness : it’s an internal state of being. Strip away all which you thought “made” you happy, and find that you can still be even happier.
    Some experiences broaden and humble our ideas of what defines happiness. I believe that truly happy people live without a lot of expectation….your point about having a few non-negotiables and letting go of the rest is spot on.
    Another thing about people who live abroad is that they are often choosing a life to live, instead of simply being affected by the world. It’s not about control, but acceptance and ownership. Even a crappy outcome by your own volition is far more satisfying in the end that something that just happened to you.

    Sorry that’s a lot of comment, but I think this is such an important post for anyone struggling to adjust to a new life situation. As always, applause for your beautiful writing.

    1. Your point about people living life abroad choosing that path is so spot on! That feeling of autonomy in your own life really helps you get through the tough spots. Even when it wasn’t easy, I’ve still been happy with my life because it was something we went after. Not having expectations is crucial as well, but sometimes easier said than done ;-)
      Thank you for reading and commenting! Abrazos!

  2. Hey Danielle, I know this post is from a little while ago but just seeing it now and LOVED IT!!! It got me thinking about an annoying comment someone idealizing life abroad made to someone having a hard time in France. The one woman told the other, “A place is only a bummer if you’re a bummer.” It made me laugh because sometimes external factors weigh us down and while so much IS in our control, a whole lot is not.
    Take, for example, a poor rural village in India that has no infrastructure, no access to clean food or water, and no modern healthcare facilities. It doesn’t matter how happy and amazing you are, sometimes you can’t enjoy your life if certain things just aren’t there.

    Anyway, here’s a post on my take on happiness over on my blog from a while ago. Hope it’s OK to link:

    1. Hello, Diane! You are always welcome to link, especially because I love your blog and point of view.

      Oh my gosh. People like that make me nuts! That kind of judgment is one of the reasons I kept so many of my feelings private when I was struggling to adjust to my new life in Colombia a couple of years ago. Everyone processes things differently and your example is spot on. When it comes to life abroad, the “idealizers” seem to forget that humans are complex and that it’s completely possible to be excited and grateful for your life on one hand, but struggle to wrap your mind and heart around the changes at the same time. I suppose that is why a like-minded community is such an important thing to find if you can.

      Thank you for reading and leaving your thoughts here. I’m off to check out your post!

      1. Oh wow, you’ve summed it up perfectly: grateful for your life but struggling to wrap your mind and HEART around it.
        SO SO PERFECT ahhh. If I quote you in a future blog post, will absolutely link back here. SO happy I found your blog. YOU GET LIFE! ;-)

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