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What is happiness and why is it important on expat assignment?

27 July 2020
There’s a growing body of research into the science of happiness, offering insights that can help us lead a happy life.  

We often use the word ‘happy’ to describe things that bring us pleasure and certainly that’s part of it, but pleasurable moments are fleeting and there’s more to happiness than that. 

Ancient Greek philosophers described two important forms of happiness. The first is, ‘hedonia’  their word for pleasure (it’s where our word hedonism comes from). They also talked about ‘eudaemonia’ which can be broadly translated as fulfilment, living a ‘good’ life, having good relationships, working towards meaningful goals, and making the most of our talents.

Modern day research suggests real happiness is a blend of the two. 

Working towards longer term meaningful goals, building good relationships and developing our potential doesn’t always feel good. It often involves challenge and struggle. Studies show that ensuring there are moments of pleasant emotions during these times can help.

They cause momentary physiological changes that add up to help us learn, adapt, connect with others and build the resilience we need to find a sense of fulfilment.


Although scientific research into happiness has increased exponentially in recent years, studying happiness and what we need to lead a fulfilling life isn't new. As human beings we have been analysing it since ancient times. Our philosophical and psychological quest for happiness can be traced back almost three millennia ago to China, India and Greece with great thinkers such as Buddha, Socrates, Aristotle and Confucius. Much of the wisdom provided by these ancients is now being confirmed by modern science in fields like positive psychology (as well as this offering new insights and perspectives).

What did change over time, was our attitude towards happiness and wellbeing. In the western world, there was a significant period before the 18th century where a melancholier attitude to life was encouraged. This was, in part, due to a commitment to earlier forms of Christianity which asked ‘sinful humanity’ to be somewhat sorrowful.

There was a significant change in this 250 years ago during the ‘Enlightenment Period’ where joy, good cheer and happiness began to be appreciated. While this allowed people to pursue happiness in its truest sense, it also had a negative side; it discouraged appearing unhappy. This is not realistic, or healthy, either.  

Although this juxtaposition varies by culture, in the West particularly we can feel pressure to always seem cheerful. Getting the balance right is something we struggle with to this day. 

Expat assignments offer exciting opportunities for fulfilment, growth and adventure. They can also be challenging.  When we undertake significant life events like moving abroad our happiness, resilience and wellbeing may be tested. The external factors that impact our happiness, like our relationships with friends and family or job satisfaction, may be in a state of flux. We find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, adjusting to a new demanding role with a new team and an entirely new culture to contend with. It can also be hard to balance the focus on work, with maintaining other important aspects of life in our new context. It is perhaps then easy to understand why expat failure rates can be up to 50%. The 2019 InterNations Expat Insider survey found that loneliness was the main reason for discontentment while overseas, leading up to 25% of expats to consider an early return home. So, understanding the most important ingredients for happiness to help us maintain our wellbeing and boost our resilience during challenging times feeds into our chances of assignment and career success.     

Discover how you can apply the science of happiness to make the most of your expat experience on the Allianz Care Happiness Hub.