During a conversation with a dear colleague with whom I hadn’t spoken for a while, they asked me the Big Question: ‘So? Are you happy there?’.
By this time I had been living in France for a while, we’d landed quite well, work was good, the children had made new friends, and our new life was taking shape, but instead of immediately answering, ‘Yes! Divinely!’, I hesitated. Which was odd. Because that’s the whole point of this relocation idea, right? That it makes you happy? So what was this hesitation all about? Was I not *actually* happy?
Well, fortunately, I didn’t think that was what it was. I was still adjusting, sure, but overall I felt happy enough. But I think this question exposes exactly some of the things you have to deal with as a global citizen/emigrant/expat/modern nomad. Because an expat existence, or moving abroad, is a rather grand and compelling narrative. It’s a Big Life, a Chosen Life. So I guess it’s logical you will be asked Big Questions at some point, like ‘Are you happy?’ (if only because people are nosy. Or because they could be living their own dreams of relocating vicariously through you, and need to know for their own peace of mind).
On reflection, there were two main reasons why I couldn’t come up with a quick answer. The first was existential; what exactly does being ‘happy’ mean? I mean, the dictionary defines it as ‘content with the present conditions of life’ which I did think described my situation, but lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. And, let’s face it, I wasn’t content all the time, We were all still adjusting to the move as we’d plonked ourselves down into the middle of a new culture, with a new language, and very much still getting used to how things work here (I will spare you the details of this morning’s online grocery shopping experience. Let’s just say ‘only in France…’). But in spite of this, I still felt we were doing really well, I just wasn’t sure that ‘happiness’ quite captured my most prominent emotion.
The second reason that stuck with me was geographical: the addition of ‘there’. Because that implies that living ‘here’ makes me happy. And it does – the beautiful sunset over the hills behind the house, the space and the garden, and the children who had thought up the idea of riding a pig. (What can I say… they are creative :-)) But my garden in the Netherlands also made me happy, as did walking along the river IJssel. And the light in New Zealand when I lived there. And our friends’ beautiful farm in the Waitakere Ranges. And all kinds of other places in the world where I’d travelled or been on holiday, or passed by on my way somewhere else.
Somewhere between the words ‘happy’ and ‘there’, I managed to trip myself up, and I found myself wondering what to say. Because just how was I supposed to answer such a question?
I think the first thing an expat or anyone who moves abroad comes to understand is that happiness and place are not all that connected. In fact, if you think that living in another place will make you happy, be careful. The happiness doesn’t come from relocating, or from picking the perfect place. It comes from you. Getting out of your comfort zone, taking steps, or doing new things are all stuff that tends to increase your sense of who you are and what is important to you. And in doing so, you will probably realise you’re pretty resilient, gutsy even, and willing to go on adventures. And this often makes people feel strong and happy. Having said that, if the place you moved away from is a particularly bad fit, or if the place you moved to is special to you, then the relocating itself can definitely bring a degree of happiness. Because of course, places may help you flourish, with their opportunities, people, urban vibrancy or natural beauty, but that’s only part of what makes you happy. You still take yourself with you wherever you go, so you are a pretty important factor in your happiness (or lack thereof). Which is great, because that’s something you can work on without having to pack up your whole life -again- and try somewhere else :-).
Anyhow, back to that conversation. After that moment’s pause I did in fact give my dear colleague a big smile and replied ‘Very much so’. Because on the whole, I am. The brief hesitation didn’t mean I wasn’t happy. It just meant that I needed to check in with myself and unpick the question. So yes, I am happy here. Which doesn’t mean I’m giddy with joy 24/7. Or that I think this particular place is my key to happiness. It does mean it has been a Good Move, and I’m happy living this adventure here and now. And that is more than enough to say: Yes. I am happy here.
If you find yourself not entirely happy with the place you are in (either literally or metaphorically), why not get in touch? We can unpick some of your questions and find some answers and some tools to help you feel happier. Wherever you are.
I mean, Are you happy there? What kind of question is that?!