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Our mindset matters…and for expats it matters more

27 August 2020

By Vanessa King, Science of Happiness Expert  

The InterNations Expat Insider 2019 survey found personal unhappiness is one of the most challenging elements of expatriate life, so what makes the difference?

It’s not just down to luck or practical arrangements, but also having a few effective psychological strategies up your sleeve. Recent research is showing there are some simple practical, evidence-based tools, tactics and habits of mind that can make all the difference.

Science of Happiness Expert, Vanessa King has been interviewing expats, like you, from a range of different countries working around the world. Some have created their own opportunities in a new place, others are on assignment from their organisation. 

One thing is clear, having the right mindset is key to success, especially when living in a different culture and given the challenges inherent within being away from the comforts of home.

Her interviewees each shared different ways their own mindset helped or got in the way and it turns out that many of their ideas are backed up by science. 

Rifka, originally French, now in Singapore (via Cameroon, Japan and Bahrain) put it like this. “Every country has good and bad points and every country is different. As I’ve moved to a new place, I’ve learned to focus on what’s good rather than comparing things to France or the previous country I lived in. Doing that meant I was only focussing on the negatives – for example arriving in Singapore I complained about missing the seasons in France when the year-round good weather means my family can enjoy all sorts of outdoor activities, like water sports.”

It turns out that what Rifka learned from her moves to several different countries has a basis in research. The human brain evolved to naturally focus on what’s wrong because being sensitive to potential risks and dangers helped our ancestors stay physically alive.

Whilst we no longer live as hunters and gathers our brains are still wired that way. We naturally more readily notice what’s wrong and weight it more heavily. This has implications for us day-to-day and is perhaps especially noticeable when adapting to life in a new place. The good news is science is also showing some simple ways we can ease this tendency.

In a now classic experiment, people were asked to each night for a week, to reflect on and write down three things from their day that:

  • They enjoyed
  • Were grateful for
  • Were pleased about

Their wellbeing was measured before the study and at intervals over the next six months. This simple activity turned out to help people feel happier and reduced their tendency to experience depression-type symptoms and this effect grew over time. So why might that be? The answer can be found in the science of emotions.

Emotions aren’t just feelings; they have a physiological effect in our bodies too. For example, unpleasant emotions may be generated when we are focussing on what’s wrong. These narrow our field of attention and causes us to overlook what’s right.

Yet when we train our brain to also notice what’s good, our perceptual fields widen and has been shown to be beneficial. Regularly experiencing pleasant emotions, although momentary, add up, helping us to:

  • be more open to ideas,
  • be more trusting of others,
  • recognise people from other cultures more readily,
  • see more options
  • solve problems more creatively 

All very useful when living in a new country and adapting to a different working environment! Importantly it doesn’t mean ignoring what’s wrong, but more actively and intentionally noticing what’s right. 

So how might you apply this where you are?

1.        Keep a notebook and pen by your bed and get into the habit of taking a minute or two, before you switch off the light, to write down three good things from that day (it’s been shown to help some people sleep better too).

2.      Make it into a family activity by sharing good things from the day over dinner or at children’s bedtime.

3.      Try it at the end of your working day - another study showed it can help you detach from work and boost how healthy you feel. 

James, an architect who has crafted his own career across several different Asian locations, was equally sure of the importance of the right mindset as an expat, in this case being optimistic in the face of the challenges you’ll inevitably come across. As he shared “You have to be an optimist, especially in difficult environments where you can't drink the water, there are constant power cuts and tonnes of mosquitos!” 
Optimism – generally expecting things will turn out well even if they aren’t currently - turns out to be an effective psychological strategy in all but the riskiest of circumstances. Optimists tend to be more resilient in tough times, less prone to burnout, take an active approach to problem solving and fare better in relationships. They have been shown to have stronger immune responses even in high challenge situations and are more likely to look after their health, including smoking and drinking less. 
But how do you cultivate an optimistic mindset if your natural tendency is to see the glass as half empty rather than half full, especially when things go wrong? One approach to try is limiting the scope of what you are attributing problems to. Rather than thinking the whole country or organisation is the issue or believing things will always be that way, narrow it to just the current situation, immediate circumstances or point in time. Another is to stop comparing things to how you think they should be or yourself to others. As Alexandre, a senior executive who moved to set up a new operation for his company advised: “Give up your expectations of how things should be or how they should work - if you don't you will hate it”! 

Getting into the habit of looking for the silver linings in issues and challenges can be a beneficial tactic too. Coming back to Rifka, she advised “Don't regret mistakes, just learn from them.” It’s what psychologists call having a ‘growth mindset’ – an essential ingredient for learning and making the most of ourselves and our time as an expat.

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