couple smiling

 

Expat relationships are at the heart of happiness


02 September 2020


By Vanessa King, Science of Happiness Expert 

Expat life often provides the opportunity to meet different people from across the world. It can also be challenging for our sense of connection. One of the largest international surveys on expat life, found social isolation to be a leading cause of assignment failure and a key reason for early return.

It takes time to establish your local social network after arriving to live in a new place. It’s likely you’ll have left behind people you care about and, along with them, important social and support systems too. Being on assignment can put additional stresses on couples and families.

So as an expat, intentionally maintaining and nurturing current relationships, whether close-by or far away, and actively building new ones is vital for feeling happy and ensuring your time on assignment is a success.

This is where the science of happiness can help.

Small moments matter

The psychobiology of positive connection

Top tips for nurturing social connection

Small, seemingly incidental moments are the foundations on which good expat relationships are built, maintained and nurtured

Observing couples interacting for 5 minutes, psychologist John Gottman could predict with 91% accuracy which relationships would survive and which would divorce.

The happiest couples had a ratio of around 5 positive momentary interactions to every negative one. Whereas unhappy couples had a higher incidence of criticism, defensiveness, and contempt.

Studies in organisations have found that short, positive interactions between colleagues, as little as six seconds, are associated with:

  • Enhanced employee wellbeing
  • Better team performance
  • Higher organisational effectiveness
  • Higher profitability

When we experience a positive moment with another person there are physiological and psychological benefits for both parties. We’ve seen there are individual benefits beyond simply feeling good.

When we share a pleasant emotional moment with another person, even if fleeting, this effect is amplified and enhanced. It causes us both to produce oxytocin, known as the ‘care and connect’ hormone. This not only feels good but makes us further attuned to others, facilitating further positive interaction and more shared pleasant moments.

Let’s explore some simple, evidence-based tips that can help to dial up those micro-moments of positivity, whether in our existing relationships or in developing new ones.

“’The most important thing to take with you wherever you go is a smile, this has been the best advice I’ve received from another expat” said James, an experienced expat currently living in Myanmar. “It’s true and has been really helpful as I’ve moved across different countries. A smile is universal regardless of language and can also help to lighten frustrating situations”.   

This good advice given to James is backed up by science too. A large US study found our mood states are contagious – up to three degrees of separation. So your mood sets the emotional tone for others and that ripples out.

Instinctively when we meet someone, we assess them for safety, warmth and trust before we consider other factors such as respect and credibility. So a simple smile can go a long way to making a positive initial connection.

The quality of attention we give to another person perhaps matters more than the total amount of time we spend with a person. How does it feel when someone we are talking to has half their attention on their phone or laptop? What message is it sending as to what’s most important for them?

Attention is powerful. When you give it to someone it signals, they are of value and worth. But it’s not always easy to give, especially when your head is full of the demands of work and practicalities at home.

Make moments count by giving the other person, whether your child, your partner, a colleague or a stranger, your full attention – even if just for a tiny moment. Pause, look up from your device, even if it is to say – ‘I’m on a deadline right now I’ll be freed up in 30 minutes.’  

Gaelle, a serial expat currently living with her two children and husband in Qatar, noted another important aspect of attention when settling into a new country. “For the first few weeks really listen and observe your children for signs they are being able to integrate.” In a previous move she was able to pick up early that her young son was struggling and could put in place helpful support for him. 

Science shows there are psychological benefits from specifically training our brain to notice and reflect on what’s good.  This also applies in our connections with others.

We may think being there for someone when things are going wrong is the most important factor in our close relationships. Turns out it’s not top of the list.

Studies show what predicts the highest quality relationships amongst couples was how their partner responded to good news!  This extends to other relationships too.

It turns out there are different, often habitual, ways we respond when someone shares something good.

For example, imagine your partner, a friend or family member says ‘I went out for a great lunch today” – how would you usually respond?

 

a)      That’s great. I’m pleased for you. Now can we talk about…. [e.g. …our plans for the weekend/who is picking up the kids/booking those tickets? Insert as appropriate!]

b)      Now you mention it, I had a fantastic lunch too, I discovered a really great new local restaurant, we must try it together sometime…

c)      Mmmm…weren’t you saying last week that you really wanted to lose weight…

d)      That sounds nice. Where did you go? What did you eat? What did you most enjoy about it?

 

Which response is most typical of you? Does it vary based on who you are talking to? Which response do you think is most positive for the other person and for that relationship?

Research shows only one of these responses, the last one (d), actively nurtures the connection. The other answers are at best passive or can be actively detrimental, eating away at the relationship over time.

By asking a few open, constructive, and curious questions in response to hearing someone’s good news and listening to their answers leads to a range of benefits:

  • Helps that person feel you are interested in them and what matters to them.
  • Helps you understand more about them and what they specifically enjoy and potentially gives you a wide basis for connection.
  • Gives them the opportunity to reflect on and emotionally benefit from their positive moment.
  • Amplifies the physiological and psychological wellbeing boost for you both.

Why not try responding with some active open and curious questions next time someone shares something good with you? Give it a go at home, with loved ones on Zoom or WhatsApp, and in the office. See what you notice about the reactions of the other person you are connecting with.

“Volunteering is a great way to build connection locally and to create meaning” says Gaelle. “In China, I worked with the ‘Forget Me Not Charity’ visiting elderly people in retirement homes. In Qatar where I am currently, as a family we help with beach clean-ups. It gets us outside, sharing time together and meeting people outside of your daily environment.” She also suggested that helping international charities, such as Habitat for Humanity, can create continuity across different moves, as well as facilitating local connections. 

Science shows when we help others not only is it beneficial for them, but it can also activate the reward centre of our own brain, giving us a happiness boost too.

By this token asking for help, which, let’s face it, isn’t always easy, can be a mood boosting opportunity for those we are asking. Further, by asking for help – we also make it easier for others to ask for help when they need it.

Back to Gaelle who advised “Don’t be afraid to reach out to the expat community. Whether before you arrive and whilst you are there. People tend to be open as they’ve been in the same boat and tend not to have as many social demands as at home.”

James has also found asking for help can be a way of maintaining and even re-kindling old relationships back at home. He’s currently setting up a new business exporting to the UK and has really valued the help of people from the village in Yorkshire he grew up in. “It’s been a really fun and unexpected way to re-connect” he said. 

As an expat, with the demands of work, staying connected to close family back at home and co-ordinating across time zones, there is a greater need to plan to maintain our relationships.

Set up regular times, even daily, to speak with close family back home. “Technology has really helped us to stay in contact” says Rifka, based in Singapore with her husband and children. “We have regular video calls with my family back in France, often while we are cooking. It’s a way of sharing in the normal daily moments and for my kids to have contact with their grandparents.”

For everyone we spoke with, making time for family was essential, whether your partner or children were on assignment with you or not.  Even though work can be demanding and time differences a challenge. Quality time together perhaps mattered over quantity. In addition to regular video and phone contact, ensuring the family comes together for holidays was also seen to be an effective strategy. The location or quality of accommodation wasn’t important but spending time and having experiences together away from work helped maintain and nurture the relationships. 

One of the most difficult aspects of being an expat highlighted by everyone I interviewed, is being far away when parents or loved ones get sick.

The advice they gave is plan how you may navigate this if it happens. Whether through:

  • Discussing it upfront with your family at home,
  • Agreeing terms of compassionate leave with a new employer
  • Having funds put aside and arrangements in place should you need to get home at short notice.  

Several of the expats I interviewed told me “You know you’ve really settled in as an expat when you get an invitation from a local to meet their friends socially. It can take a year or more, if it happens at all.” So it pays to be pro-active and prepared to drop our normal boundaries.

For example, on moving to Barcelona, Alex put effort into building connections with his elderly Catalan neighbours.  “I invited them in for drinks even though I couldn’t speak their language – after all who doesn’t like having a look inside someone else’s home? Curiosity is international! I then found they liked wine so I brought them some from home. Not only did it feel a nice thing to do but has been really helpful to know someone is keeping an eye out when I’m away. Then when my parents came to visit, my neighbours invited them over, which they all loved!”

Gaelle too has found opening her home effective in moving to a new place. In her case specifically inviting new classmates of her children for playdates as soon as possible. “It has helped them build friendships and settle in at school.”

For most, building connections with local people is often easiest through work. Even then some pro-activity and bravery helps.

Gaelle, took to the stage! She was working for a company with a majority of Chinese employees and agreed to participate in the annual staff performance for Chinese New Year.  “It’s not something I’d have done at home but being willing to take part turned out to be fun and helped me feel connected.” 

Having felt isolated at first, Rifka found that attending local cultural events gave her something to talk about with local colleagues aside from business. She advised “Whenever you have the opportunity to connect locally, always grab it. People will always appreciate the effort we do to understand and to embrace their cultures”

 

So while relationships matter for happiness wherever you are, the challenges of expat life mean being intentional about maintaining and forming relationships matters even more. Being intentional about how best to nurture them can be essential to thriving during your time abroad. 

Looking for more information on improving your expat happiness? Keep an eye on the Allianz Care Expat Happiness Hub for more practical articles, webinars and our Happiness Habits quiz where you can track the things you do that have been shown to contribute to happiness. 

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