What’s The Secret to Long Term Expat Happiness?

After six and a half years here in Beijing, I can comfortably say that I have joined the ranks of the long term expats. I’ve seen many friends and patients come and go. But I’m still here with my wife, and now with my new son Alex. And despite all those constant stressors from environmental scandals, bad traffic and all too rare perfect weather, we continue to have a satisfying adventure here. What’s our secret? And is there a common thread, some survival skill, which separates long term expats from those that leave earlier?

Happiness index

No matter where you are in the world. if you want to thrive in your community you need happiness. If you’re happy, you stay. If you’re unhappy, you move along. I think the main secret to expat happiness in Beijing is a healthy attitude, open mind, and deep social connections. Our minds are powerful mediators of our physical health, and to survive in Beijing’s often harsh environs you definitely need a tolerant and malleable frame of mind. Otherwise, a buildup of stress or unhappiness will inevitably wear down your immune system and lead to illnesses as well as chronic problems such as heart disease. This is why a successful long term expat comes to terms with those stressors and rides them out, like a luxury boat on a choppy river.

I asked one of our psychologists, Dr Rob Blinn, what he thought was the secret to long term expat happiness for both kids and adults:

Several meta-studies in the past few decades have shown that neither health nor wealth are predictive of happiness.  What is predictive is the breadth and depth of social connections.  This is true for kids as well as adults.  I think this is the most important tip I have.  The people who do well here seem to have lots of close friends.   They also seem to know when to ask for help or support when they are struggling.

I’ve always found relaxing activities such as yoga, tai chi or a massage to be powerful tools for relaxing and resetting my balance. Yoga, especially, has well researched benefits on happiness and relaxation as well as treating anxiety and depression. All of these activities are readily available in Beijing. A good, inexpensive massage surely is one of the best perks of living here!

Another key for long term happiness here is to really connect with your community of local Beijingers. If you’re always in an expat bubble and especially don’t learn Chinese, you’re much more likely to suffer that “Lost in Translation” ennui and never really understand the charming side of local Beijingers. The best way to explore Beijing is on a bike! Our favorite activity in Beijing is to bicycle through the hutongs inside second ring, randomly taking turns and discovering new gems each time. Beijing is at its most charming after dinner as everyone socializes outside, and you can have a fun and rewarding social experience joining everyone as they sing and dance on every street corner and park.

Physical health is crucial for long term happiness. Exercising the recommended 90-150 minutes a week; getting a good night’s sleep; not letting stress take over your life; eating a balanced diet; drinking in moderation and no smoking; not getting overweight — all these lifestyle basics are helpful anywhere to thrive.

The number one tip again: be social! And have a wonderful time!

(This article was originally printed in the current edition of Beijing Kids magazine, where I am a contributing editor. You can click here to read the rest of my BeijingKids “The Doc Is In” columns.)

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