When living overseas, expat partners should be wary of using ‘happiness’ as a way to judge the ‘success’ of an assignment.
‘Are you happy?’ can be an inadvertently problematic question to answer for many people. Expat partners may feel an extra pressure to respond in a positive fashion. For some, hidden within this line of interrogation, there lurks a troubling logic that might have them think: If I’m not upbeat and happy, does that mean something must be wrong, or things are bad? But people don’t have to be ‘happy’ to be living a fulfilling or satisfactory life, nor should happiness be used as a measuring stick for the quality of anyone’s life, especially when overseas.
The downside of being upbeat
In a pithy essay, titled ‘How to live unhappily ever after’, the American writer Augusten Burroughs lamented his ‘super-positive’ society’s infatuation with happiness, believing there’s a downside to being upbeat all the time. “Who feels ‘Great!’ all the time?” he wondered. Burroughs certainly doesn’t. “A lot of the time what I feel is… interested. Or I feel melancholy. And I also frequently feel tenderness, annoyance, confusion, fear, hopelessness. It doesn’t all add up to anything I would call happiness. But what I’m thinking is, is that so terrible?”
Is there something here for the expat partner to consider, too? In this social media age, we can all slip into the habit of trying to prove to friends that we’re having a whale of a time, all the time. We must be conscious of the realities of expat life – overseas isn’t a non-stop joyride. An expat partner might also feel strong, challenging emotions when living in a foreign land: mistrust, isolation, role confusion, stagnation. Asking if they are ‘happy’ could cause feelings of guilt, perhaps even making them question themselves, if not the whole assignment.
The expat experience
Of course, this can’t stop well-meaning friends and families innocently enquiring about an expat couple’s happiness when they return home on holidays, perhaps with an expectation for them to gush non-stop about their ‘fantastic adventures’. Day to day, week to week, expat partners may have felt joy, melancholy, wonder, homesickness, inspiration, confusion, appreciation, irritation, and dozens of other strong emotions. But they shouldn’t worry. If they don’t want to unload all of that on their family, Global Connection’s consultants are always ready to listen.