For expats, happiness begins at home

For expats, happiness begins at homeThe results of a new study indicate that expats who are happy with their homes — both the neighbourhoods and the dwellings themselves — are happier with their lives.

Well, duh.

Expatriates travel far from home — sometimes so far, and for so long, that they aren’t even sure where “home” is anymore. Yet on a purely practical level, it’s quite simple: the house you live in with the people you love is your home, no matter where it is.

Your house is a refuge. It’s the sanctuary to which you retreat every night, shutting out the world so you can take a deep breath and begin to process all the weird and wonderful sights, sounds and smells you’ve experienced throughout the day. Within the safety of its walls, you’re free to sift through the details of your interactions with local people, celebrating small victories and puzzling over failures.

Or as William J. Bennett put it: “Home is a shelter from storms — all sorts of storms.”

Environmental psychologists know that our environs influence our mood and behaviour, especially in times of stress and instability. If your expat home is unwelcoming, it becomes harder to maintain a positive attitude in the face of setbacks.

My own living arrangements have been hit and miss over the years.

I chose my first house in Singapore on our look-see visit. I knew when I saw that tiny little townhouse that it would be perfect for us. I’m cursed with shyness, and since there were only a few units in the complex, I realized I’d be forced to interact with my neighbours. That neighbourhood turned out to be a little slice of expat heaven; I loved living there.

Happiness begins at homeBut two years down the road our friends started to move on, and we didn’t click quite as well with the new residents. So we moved to an enormous condo on Bukit Timah Road. The facilities were great, the pool area was resort-like, and our unit was bright and airy. But despite its beauty, we never enjoyed the sense of community we’d slipped into so easily at our previous location. Surrounded by people, I was lonely.

We’d grown accustomed to the country-club version of the expat lifestyle in Singapore, so moving to Bordeaux was a shock. We settled into a pre-WWII-era house just outside the city centre. I loathed it. It was small and cramped; I spent most of my time in the loft because it was the only room big enough to house a desk and computer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t insulated, so in the winter I did my coursework wearing bulky sweaters, and in the summer I wore nothing but a slick coating of sweat.

There were heavy metal shutters on the windows that charmed me when I first saw them; I imagined myself gaily throwing them open and, like the demoiselles in Beauty and the Beast, calling out a cheerful bonjour to friendly passers-by. But they remained closed for days on end while I sat in darkness.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses The Broken Window hypothesis, which suggests that neglecting your environment sends out a clear signal that it’s not worthy of attention. In urban centres, this leads to crime and vandalism; on a domestic scale, dissatisfaction with your home can colour all other areas of your life. If you’re not happy where you live, where can you be happy?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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5 Responses to For expats, happiness begins at home

  1. bookjunkie says:

    The home is so basic and important. It’s the place we retreat to when everything goes wrong. It’s the place I feel safe as well.

  2. Judy says:

    I guess I’ve been pretty lucky in that I never HATED anywhere we lived. Our first apartment in Baku was pretty ugly and uncomfortable. I remember my Russian teacher trying to teach me colours. She was asking me, what colour is the couch in your living room, what colour are the walls, what colour are the curtains? We both fell about laughing when my answer every time was “brown.” My son, then age 9, had a book about about a witch and next to her front door hung a sign which said “Home Horrible Home” and we used to joke that I ought to embroider one at my craft group. So at least we could laugh about it. But I think the main reason we didn’t hate it was despite its dinginess, it was a refuge from “outside” when culture shock got the better of us. Expats need to cocoon sometimes when things get tough.

  3. milkitchen says:

    Home is like a private place for us, like a refuge as you mentioned. So doesn’t matter it is small or cramp, it is still acceptable and after a long day, you just want to be home. I haven’t had a home for close to a year now. Since I got here, I have been putting up with my in laws. Life in the house feels like a pressure cooker and my only refuge is the little bedroom that I share with my husband, my baby and our dog. It doesn’t feel great but it does feel better after the bedroom door is shut because it is a place that I have a little sense of belonging.

  4. Sine says:

    Once again, that’s very true. Though, using your own experience, what’s even more important than your own house is the kinds of friends you make. Home is where your friends are, I think. Not that you don’t keep the ones you make elsewhere, but you need people to do fun stuff with wherever you live. But yes, the house is very important. Wherever I live, I love to spend time in it. We’ve been very lucky with the kinds of houses we ended up with. Sometimes without me even seeing them, because whichever one we might have selected on the look-see trip might have then be taken off the market, despite affirmative assurances by the landlord (a very South African phenomenon!).

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