The 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.
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.
But 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?