The Guide To Expat Happiness

Our second child, the tween, suggested we watch Hector and the Search for Happiness. She’d watched it on a plane. We were five minutes into the movie when the first robust profanity came, which was just minutes before the sex scene – eight year old Henry Hotdog was giggling as he covered his eyes with his fingers spread wide “I’m not looking, I’m not looking!”

G turned to the grinning tween “what’s the rating on this movie?”

“Dad, it’s got a really good message – there’s only a bit of sex and swearing”. I felt a proverbial patronising pat make its way across the room and land on the top of my head.

She was right. Hector had some great tips, tips that I couldn’t help but transfer into our expat life. So here it is, a guide to expat happiness.

1. Making comparisons can ruin your happiness.

Having worked in recruitment for years I know that no two employment contracts are the same. Comparisons in the expat world are irrelevant. None of it is yours. It’s all pretend. When you drop your child at Jemeirah Jane’s beachside bouncy castle birthday extravaganza, and find yourself turning greener than her imported Canadian pines just remember, none of it belongs to Jane. Expat salaries differ dramatically, and there are many things to consider. While your housing allowance may be terrible your home leave allowance may be fantastic. You must always consider the entire package. Do you have a roof over your head? Can you afford to eat? Stop looking at Jane, think about the guy who washes Jane’s car. You’re probably a lot better off than many of those around you. A wise friend of mine recently told me “the only time you look in your neighbours bowl is to make sure they have enough.”

2. A lot of people think happiness means being richer and more important

That overseas gig may have lulled you into a false sense of self-importance. Maybe someone packed up your house for you, met you at the airport and drove you to a hotel. Perhaps you now have someone to help you at home. This is your chance to make a difference to someone else’s life. Help someone build a house back in their own country. Teach someone your language. Make friends with someone who has lived a life completely different to the one you know and understand. Get richer in experience and realise just how tiny you are in this enormous world.

3. Many people only see happiness in their future

As an expat it’s too easy to get caught up in the plan. “If we could just save for the next two years we could…” As a parent you’re sure that things will get easier when your child can sit up, walk, when you’re stroller free or have someone at school. Happiness is right now. Happiness is right here amongst the chaos.

4. Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story

As an expat you may never truly understand the culture of where you are living. Stop trying to match it with your own.

5. Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness

You’re going to have your bad days, you’re going to be homesick, lonely and lost. We need the bad days to appreciate the good days – it’s how we measure how far we’ve come.

6. Do your expat friends bring you a) up, or b) down

Stop hanging around negative Nelly. Being with someone who continually points out the faults in your location and lifestyle is only going to bring you down. We’re all allowed to have a whine, but don’t get caught up in it. Surround yourself with positive people.

7. Happiness is answering your calling

What do you love to do? Is this your chance to do it? There’s no better time for re-invention.

8. Happiness is being loved for who you are

Find someone who ‘gets’ you. You’re probably going to have to put yourself out there, join a few groups, head to a few new events. The best thing about the expat world is everyone is from somewhere else and they’ve all been in the same situation – new and friendless. Find yourself someone to share the adventure with.

9. Happiness is knowing how to celebrate

Reward yourself for your hard work. You’ve managed to move from one side of the world to another – congratulations! Don’t forget to celebrate your milestones: your first pay slip, signing the contract on your new house, successfully getting the internet connected! Sometimes it’s the small things, don’t forget to celebrate along the way.

10. Nostalgia is not what it used to be

The expat grass is proverbially greener. Home becomes a sacred land. The last expat location that you couldn’t wait to leave now suddenly doesn’t seem that bad. The food was amazing in Jakarta, the shopping better in KL, the air cleaner in Libya, and the mountains more dramatic in Canada. You have conveniently forgotten the resident rat in the laundry, the house break-ins, and the fact you were constantly broke. Enjoy each location for what it is now – your adventure, your choice.

What do you think? What would you add? What makes you happy?

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  1. Sarah-Jane says

    Great post 🙂

  2. This is the last time I will write this. Point 6., 7. and 8. Sometimes dont apply because there are no other expats. Did this ever happen to someone? We lived for 5 years in a city far away from an expat community and the locals didn’t welcome us at all, only envied our lifestyle. I only wanted/ needed one friend.
    They only saw our huge apartment, the car, the trips we took and our children studying overseas. We couldn’t have honest conversations anymore because the reaction was always that we are rich and spoiled.
    So for 5 years I was on my own during the day and some days when my husband had to go on a business trip. I learned al lot about myself, our marriage and that most friends only visit you if you are at a convenient location. Now we moved to a warm, fancy location and suddenly people, I havent had contact with in a long time, want to get in touch again and visit us.

    Now we start again, 5th country, new adventure.

  3. kiwiontheloose says

    “The only time you look in your neighbour’s bowl is to make sure they have enough”, I love that. This post couldn’t have come at a better time as I find myself in a new country coming to terms with this new path in life and having a few (!) wobbles along the way. Thank you Kirsty 🙂

  4. Love it, just what I need right now,,, Yes it make me Happy. Thank youuuu

  5. These are great reminders! I can get negative, but I do try to balance it with some of the points you made. The grass in the States wasn’t even green, it was white as snow…and I HATED the snow! Lol. And always good to remind ourselves that this is where we chose to be…for some reason or another. We chose here. It’s not by luck or chance that we ended up here, so let’s do what we set out to do! 🙂

  6. In a way it’s sad how homogenized the world has become and you can

    pretty much find a way of getting what you
    need or a substitute anywhere in the
    world. It really bothers me when people
    complain about shopping and supplies . I
    once met an expat lady who moved to Doha years ago and lived in a tent as
    there wasn’t family accommodation and certainly not gluten free dog biscuits for Fido or organic brazilian almond extract .

  7. Darlene Foster says

    I needed to read this right now. Settling into life in Spain has had its challenges. Thanks Kirsty!

  8. I live this so much. Now to ensure I’m not the negative Nellie.

  9. Sarah Derrig says

    7 and 8 ring so true for me!! Xxx

  10. sundaebean says

    Kirsty, you are so right on so many levels here. For me expat happiness, especially as an expat spouse, includes choosing “hero(ine)” over “victim”, getting clear on what you really really want, and taking action every day (in big and small ways) toward those goals.

  11. The Observer says

    Good read!

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