As founder of Best Places in the World to Retire, I have read almost 10,000 answers to questions about moving abroad from more than 500 expats on our site. In addition, my wife and I and our two dogs crossed the border into Mexico on our Mexico road trip in May of last year and toured the country in a big white van for the better part of a year, which gave us the opportunity to experience firsthand what it’s like to live in unfamiliar places and circumstances. Combining what others have told me with our own experiences has led me to some conclusions about what it would take for anyone—let’s take you as an example-- to be happy living abroad.
Have you ever moved to a new state or town within your home country? If so, how did you deal with the experience? Were you stressed out, unhappy and annoyed about having to find a new dry cleaner or having to figure out how to get the electricity turned on, or did you “go with the flow” and look forward to the possibility of experiencing something new?
Moving abroad is a lot like that, only more so.
Why? Because, in addition to all the differences you find when moving within your own country, moving abroad piles on more differences. Some people interpret these differences as irritations while others interpret them as exciting new possibilities.
But can a person’s fundamental attitude towards dealing with differences change? Perhaps in some isolated cases, but from what expats have told us and now having experienced it ourselves, I have become a firm believer that if you were to bet “no” on whether each person’s fundamental attitude towards dealing with change and differences would be altered by moving abroad, you would become wealthy. It’s been said that, as we get older, our looks don’t really change; we just look more like ourselves. Our attitude towards dealing with change is like that; it just gets more pronounced over time and with the greater changes that moving abroad usually brings.
If you are wondering whether you would be happy moving abroad, it makes sense to do very honest self-appraisal of how you deal with differences and change now, and assume (because it’s a pretty safe bet) that the way you deal differences and change now won’t fundamentally and magically be altered by moving abroad; it will just become heightened.
Answer honestly: are you optimistic, or are you pessimistic? Do you embrace change, or do you run from it? When you see something different, do you search for the good in it with an open and curious mind, or do you define “different” as “less than”? Two people can see the same thing and interpret it completely differently.
Now, the good news. Can living abroad change you for the better? You bet it can. I’ve seen it in others, we’ve written about it, and I believe I’ve experienced a bit of this change myself. The day-to-day of living abroad has more differences than moving within your home country and of course living abroad would cause you to encounter more differences than never moving anywhere at all. With these differences can come 1) unhappiness; or, 2) a more intense, a more vibrant, a more fulfilling life, as well as the greater likelihood of even life-altering realizations and reinvention. However, this happier outcome is likely only if you’re already pre-disposed to it.
In the study we did of expats living in Panama, Belize and Nicaragua, titled Expats: Expectations & Reality we received hundreds of responses to “How has being an expat changed you?” Here are some representative examples and others from our site:
“Moving abroad woke me up to reality. It helped me value how blessed I was and to live better with less. It has given me the opportunity to grow as an individual and be less selfish, to discover other cultures, to make a difference.” – Olga Suarez, from US, living in Panama.
“I feel more free and objective about the world” – Martha Beech, from US, living in Nicaragua
“I had a 6,000-sq. foot home back in the States when I sold off all my ‘things’ and moved here to Panama with two suitcases. Now I live with much less but I feel I concentrate on more important things such as friendships and socializing and helping others. It's a grand life when you give it up for a simpler life.” – Danny Blank, from US, living in Panama
“It is hard to get used to the fact that we are so bred to be on time and to hurry and make an appointment. That is not the culture here in Belize at all. Things go wrong here. People leave when they are ready. If they are late, who cares? It is not a real ‘on demand place.’ Moving to Belize is healthier for our minds. We were raised to be such machines in the US and worry and hurry but I see that, with their culture, Belizeans are all happy.”—David Berger, from Chicago, living in Belize.
I have come to believe that these successful expats were pre-disposed to change; that this pre-disposition is like a prerequisite class one must take in college before getting to the really good stuff, but if you fail the prerequisite, you should try a different major.
A good attitude toward differences not only makes happiness abroad possible, but it also helps those who do it to get the most out of what living abroad has to offer. If you have a good attitude towards change and differences, you’ll most likely be happy abroad, just like you would be happy anywhere else… only more so.
Chuck Bolotin is the founder of Best Places in the World to Retire(click on: https://bestplacesintheworldtoretire.com/), a website that provides credible information to those researching moving, visiting, or doing business abroad. Prior to that, Chuck founded, funded, ran and sold two companies. He is a frequent guest lecturer at the Eller College of Management MBA Program, mentored at the Arizona Center for Innovation, and frequently sat on the Desert Angels Screening Panel in Tucson, Arizona. After selling his home in Arizona and completing a one year road trip through Mexico, Chuck now lives in Ajijic, Mexico, with his wife, Jet, and their two dogs.
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