After six and a half years in Beijing, I can say that I have joined the ranks of long-term expats. I’ve seen many friends and patients come and go. But I’m still here with my wife – and now, our new son, Alex. Despite constant stressors from environmental scandals, bad traffic and the all-too-rare perfect weather, we continue to have a satisfying adventure here. What’s our secret? Is there a common thread that separates long-term expats from those who leave earlier?
No matter where you are in the world, you need happiness to thrive in your community. If you’re happy, you stay. If you’re unhappy, you move along. I think the secrets to expat happiness in Beijing are a healthy attitude, an open mind, and deep social connections. Our minds are powerful mediators of our physical health; to survive in Beijing’s harsh environment, you need a tolerant and malleable frame of mind.
Otherwise, a buildup of stress or unhappiness will wear down your immune system, leading to illnesses and chronic problems such as heart disease. 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 he secret to long-term expat happiness was for kids and adults:
“Several meta-studies in the past few decades have shown that neither health nor wealth are predictive of happiness,” he said. “What is predictive is the breadth and depth of social connections. This is true for kids as well as adults. The people who do well here seem to have lots of close friends. They also know when to ask for help when they are struggling.”
I’ve always found activities such as yoga, tai chi, or massage to be powerful tools for resetting my balance. Yoga especially has well-researched effects on happiness and relaxation, and can help alleviate anxiety and depression. All these activities are readily available in
Beijing. A good, inexpensive massage is without a doubt one of the perks of living here!
Another key to long-term happiness is connecting with the local community. If you’re always in the expat bubble and don’t learn Chinese, you’re much more likely to suffer that Lost in Translation ennui. My family’s favorite activity is cycling through the hutongs within Second Ring Road, taking random turns and discovering new gems. Beijing is at its most charming after dinner; you can have a fun and rewarding experience simply by joining everyone as they sing and dance on street corners and in parks.
Physical health is also crucial to long-term happiness. Exercising the recommended 90 to 150 minutes a week, getting a good night’s sleep, managing stress, eating a balanced diet, drinking in moderation, not smoking, and controlling your weight are lifestyle basics to live by anywhere.
Once again, the number one tip is to be social – and have a wonderful time!
Photo from Stoppress on Flickr
This article originally appeared on p25 of the beijingkids July 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com