man thinking

 

Finding meaning in expat life


09 September 2020


By Vanessa King, Science of Happiness Expert 

People with a strong sense of what gives their life meaning tend to:
 

  • experience higher wellbeing
  • have a more positive outlook
  • be less impacted by stress
  • be more engaged at work
  • have better physical health
  • feel more in control of themselves and their lives
  • be less likely to become dependent on alcohol or drugs
  • have a healthier old age

Getting clarity on our own sources of meaning is a journey and it is likely to evolve. One thing is for sure if we put our minds to it and apply some of the learnings from science, our expat assignments can help us find it! 

In recent years psychologists have identified three primary elements of meaning in life:

1.        Significance: Feeling what we do in life (both inside and outside work) is worthwhile and makes a difference in some way to someone or something else

2.      Coherence: Feeling the narrative of our life makes sense to us

3.      Purpose: Having a sense of purpose and direction

Viktor Frankl, the father of meaning psychology, believed that the search for meaning is a primary human drive, but it’s not easy.

He argued that we each need to discover or create it for ourselves through; experiences, both elevating and adversity; significant work; and creative or good acts.

Expat life can be a rich source of these.

Finding meaning or nurturing it in our lives can be challenging. It often involves getting out of our comfort zone and facing difficulties. But it is a path to finding fulfilment over time so we are able to look back and feel that we’ve lived our best life. 

Meaning is personal. Only we can decide what is meaningful for us.

Research suggests that a meaningful life tends to go beyond the self and our immediate concerns. It is also something more than the sum of our short-term pleasures.

A meaningful life is generally one where we feel connected to and/or contributing to something larger. This may be through:

  • our relationships – caring for, nurturing and supporting others
  • our work
  • contributing to good causes and helping others
  • increasing knowledge, innovation or beauty in the world
  • creating elevating experiences e.g. through learning, creativity or experiencing awe
  • spiritual connections e.g. with nature, or through a faith or religion

That sense of something bigger may extend across to future generations too. Leaving the world a little (or a lot) better in some way than we found it, leaving a positive footprint or legacy behind us. 

For many expats developing their careers is the core purpose of moving abroad and they find meaning in making that a success. 

However, research shows that having several concurrent sources of meaning, rather than one primary one, is beneficial for wellbeing and can increase resilience.  It provides a firmer foundation. If one source is threatened, say we lose our job, others are still there to help us carry on!

Having a strong foundation of meaning makes us less likely to be workaholics.

So how might you make sure your time as an expat adds meaning to your life?

 

James, an architect, was impacted by the 2008 financial crisis, when his sector took a significant downturn and he became unemployed. Realising he did not want to get stuck in work that wasn’t his passion simply for money, he decided to move abroad.

In James’ view “You have to hunt for what you want. My expat journey has given me a deep sense of fulfilment and my self-worth has increased because I’ve created for myself opportunities to move forward at work and to grow.”

After initially taking some time off to travel he landed in Kuala Lumpur. Through focus and effort he found himself a job where he could make a difference. “I went from designing barn conversions then, out of necessity, to bar work in Yorkshire to building skyscrapers in Asia. It was immensely satisfying to problem solve and see my buildings rise up. Now in Myanmar I can literally see the whole country grow.”

He went on to explain that one of the things expat life has given him is the freedom to craft his own life. “I get to do things I couldn’t back at home. And unlike home, there’s no-one here to judge you.”

For James this extends outside of work too. “It would have been easy to spend my spare time in the bars or on the beach, but I've done an MBA remotely (taking those exams at the British Council) and I am currently studying for another Masters in Real Estate, I see it as an investment to shape my future, it’s interesting and gives me something more to talk about when I meet people.” 

Looking back from the future

Where will you find fulfilment in life and as an expat?

A great activity to help you think about this is to stand in the future and look back. A couple of suggestions to try are below. You might want to do this as a written activity, one that you reflect on and add over several days.

·    Looking back to your life as a whole

Imagine you are 90 and you’ve lived a life you’ve found really fulfilling. Reflect on the following questions.:

–   What specifically brought you fulfilment?

–   What was it along the way that stood out for you?

–   What are the things that made you most proud?

–   What did you learn and grow most from?

–   How have you made a positive difference to something or someone else?


What key sources of meaning emerge for you?

Now think about what you can act on at the present time and immediate future to help ensure those sources of meaning in your life are actively nurtured.

·    Looking back to your current expat assignment

You can bring this activity a bit closer in time to help you think specifically about your current expat assignment. For example, imagine you’ve come to the end of your assignment and you are about to move on. Ask yourself the questions above to proactively think about the ingredients that will make your time as an expat meaningful and fulfilling. 

Alexandre who has had multiple expat assignments over the course of his career advised pro-actively looking ahead.

If you are on assignment for three years and then moving back to your previous place of work and home – really think about and plan for that. “After an expat assignment your horizons are broader. You are not the same.”

So think about how you can make being back at home meaningful. 

All the people I interviewed were clear - it’s important to know your real motivation for being an expat. Have goals you are moving towards rather than running away from difficulties. This helps you make choices and anticipate and navigate challenges.

Your purpose may change over time and as you move through different life stages. When you are younger your primary motivations may be to earn money and see the world. As you get older your motivations may shift to more specific and strategic growth of your career and, if you have a family, providing for them in the short and longer-term.

Of course people go on expat assignment for different reasons. Here are some of the driving purposes we heard:

For Alexandre the motivation for a move to Barcelona was clear: “I went for the mission not the city.”

“My firm had been talking about setting up a centralised European support function. In Business operations, we had been discussing the need to harmonize our approach for years. But breaking away from our usual national operations was a larger cultural change. I was offered the chance to take it on, move to a new country, set up a plan, design processes, create an international team and implement the changes across all countries.”

This assignment was a challenge for his most important relationship too, his marriage. His wife, a Doctor, had career goals of her own and to fulfil those she needed to stay in Germany. So they agreed Alexandre would move to Spain alone for three years.

“It was challenging for us” he said. “But I had no doubt we could make it work because we knew why we were doing it.” 

For some of our interviewees accelerating their career has been a motivation. Being an expat has been key to that.

For many the boost to their careers while living overseas was something they could not have achieved staying in their home country. James for example was able to get involved in bigger and more complex projects sooner than he would have been able to at home in the UK. 

All the expats with children that I spoke to felt strongly that the current and future happiness of their children was a key driver.

They all found meaning in seeing their children learn about different cultures, adapt to new environments and speak other languages. Believing this would help prepare them for a future in an increasingly global world.

Gaelle, a lifelong expat, was also clear that this may mean you need to pause your assignments for your children. “My children are becoming teenagers and for that stage I believe they need a more stable foundation as they face important exams and develop into young adults, so for the next few years we’ll be based back in France. After that – who knows!” 

Gaelle has had times as an expat where her work has driven their family’s move and times when they moved because of her spouse’s career. Even in the latter case, she said having a clear sense of purpose matters, which can be hard if you’ve put your own career goals on hold. Her advice was to keep in mind that it is for a fixed period only and find ways to make it a meaningful time for you too.

For example, in a move to China, Gaelle knew even if she couldn’t pursue her career within her previous sector, for her, finding work was important. She found a job in a new ‘field’ that opened new avenues and learning, even if it wasn’t on the path she planned. This work change in China did reveal to be the beginning of a new career path in a new ‘sector’ much more meaningful than the industry she was working in the precedent years.  

If, as a trailing spouse, you can’t or don’t want to work, find meaning in other ways such as through getting involved in local activities, developing a new skill or hobby, learning to speak the language or through volunteering for good causes. 

Gaelle has had times as an expat where her work has driven their family’s move and times when they moved because of her spouse’s career. Even in the latter case, she said having a clear sense of purpose matters, which can be hard if you’ve put your own career goals on hold. Her advice was to keep in mind that it is for a fixed period only and find ways to make it a meaningful time for you too.

For example, in a move to China, Gaelle knew even if she couldn’t pursue her career within her previous sector, for her, finding work was important. She found a job in a new ‘field’ that opened new avenues and learning, even if it wasn’t on the path she planned. This work change in China did reveal to be the beginning of a new career path in a new ‘sector’ much more meaningful than the industry she was working in the precedent years.  

If, as a trailing spouse, you can’t or don’t want to work, find meaning in other ways such as through getting involved in local activities, developing a new skill or hobby, learning to speak the language or through volunteering for good causes. 

Ask yourself ‘Why? Why? Why?....’

What are your motivations for your expat assignment? What comes readily to mind? List these things down.

Now take each thing you’ve listed in turn and ask yourself ‘Why?’ When you’ve answered that, ask ‘Why?’ again for that response. Continue asking ‘Why?’ until no more responses emerge. It’s likely then you‘ve got to your underlying or true motivation.

For example, if one of your immediate answers is to make money. Your answer to the first why might be because it feels and looks good! The next why might reveal that money gives you freedom and security. The next why uncovers that you feel it will give you more choice over what you do in the future, unlike your parents that had to work hard all their lives in jobs they weren’t happy in. Your final why might expose the desire to have enough time to pursue a passion or dream that is important to you. And so on…

Once you are clear on your underlying motivations, you know your real ‘why’ or ‘whys’ – it enables you to plan for and prioritise what matters most.  

Several of the expats interviewed found meaning in ways their assignments expanded their minds as well as their horizons.

Exploring the possibilities your new location offers, beyond your existing interests can be rewarding, adding texture to the tapestry of your assignment and life.

Being open to what’s new to you can be a boost for creative thinking too!  

“You feel like you are living a life rich in experiences and it feeds you. The world is very big!” remarked Gaelle. There are everyday adventures, opportunities to do and try new things. To bigger adventures visiting places you wouldn’t have ever got to if you weren’t an expat. “We’ve had family trips to the West of China, we’d never have had those experiences if we’d stayed living in our home country. And we carry those experiences with us.”

James bought a motorbike and spent his weekends exploring the countryside and towns around where he was living. Often, he’d do this with a friend he’d made, often a fellow expat from a different background. “Not only were we able to explore, but the experiences we had together created a meaningful friendship. 

Some expats I interviewed felt that working and exploring overseas was a core part of who they were, their personality.

Rifka noted that for her a fulfilling highlight as an expat is the learning curve. “Wherever you go you learn a new cultural approach. It opens your mind. It’s never enough. I’ve worked overseas my whole career and I’m still learning. It’s exciting!”

Finding ways to contribute to charitable or other good causes locally can be a source of meaning outside of work in several ways. In addition to making a difference, it can be a way to do something with your family or to meet other expats and locals or even a way to combine being physically active and being in contact with nature.

For example, Gaelle and her family got involved in beach clean ups in Qatar and supporting elderly locals in China.  

Do something different

Human beings are creatures of habit – our brain is designed to automate where it can. For example, after a short period in a location we establish a routine. Maybe walking the same way to work or going to the same coffee or lunch spot every day.

Whilst this can be great for establishing yourself in a place and building local connections, it can also mean we aren’t opening our horizons. We stop noticing what’s new, interesting or beautiful around us.

So try mixing it up:

  • Take a different route to work once a week
  • Go out of your way to try a different lunch spot – or at least a different dish at your favourite place
  • One weekend a month plan an adventure to somewhere new
  • Learn to play a musical instrument or to cook the local cuisine or even a local craft
  • Take a class in something you’ve not tried before
  • Try a different type of book or news channel to what you normally enjoy
  • Once a month go to a different type of cultural event.

The world is a big place if we choose to explore it!

When we think of happiness what most readily comes to mind is usually pleasure and enjoyment in the present.  That is important.

But science shows it’s not enough for a truly happy, healthy, well-lived life.

Fulfilling our purpose and nurturing the other sources of meaning in our life is for the long term and isn’t easy. It often requires us to overcome obstacles, deal with challenges from outside and inside us, and to move beyond what we already know.

Back to Alexandre and his move to set up a new international shared service centre. Something that neither he nor his employer had tried before.

“It wasn’t easy and there were many challenges along the way.” But as he explained “You don’t do it for the moment, you do it for the after.”

“The pain is temporary, the pride in what you achieved is forever.”

 



Want more information and ideas on expat happiness? The Allianz Care Expat Happiness Hub contains more practical articles, webinars, and our Happiness Habits quiz to help you track the things you do that have been shown to contribute to expat happiness.

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