Claudia Brision is a former French neuroscientist currently transforming herself into a specialist in communication and marketing at the Aarhus University’s Business School. Claudia frequently writes blogs about life in Denmark and you can follow her on www.danishbaguette.com
Relocating to a different country is always a challenge. But the biggest challenge may not lie so much in the practicalities of moving, as in being happy in one’s new environment. It is interesting to look at the list of the happiest countries for expats and compare it to an objective measure of countries’ “potential for happiness” if we can say, for example the Human Development Index . There is a clear discrepancy between the two. A striking feature of the list of happiest countries for expats, is the absence of the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland) usually in the top of all rankings, including the World Happiness Report. Of course there are a multitude of reasons for that, including the weather, social relations, or the cost of living. However, a strong factor that is often underestimated is expectations.
Expectations drive human life and interactions. Whatever the country you move to, it is impossible not to have in mind some stereotypes or stories you have heard about the country. They can be positive or negative, but positive expectations can do more harm than negative ones, as they lead to disappointment when reality hits.
For example, if you plan to move to France, you have probably heard that French people are reluctant to speak English, so you will not be surprised if they don’t. However you might be very pleasantly surprised if you meet a French person who speaks great English (we do exist, I promise).
In another situation, if you move to a country with an overall great reputation, like any of the Nordic countries, top scoring in almost every development and environmental indexes, you will have high expectations. Even if you are not aware of those expectations. So when you realize after some time, that some things are not perfect there, for example that they eat a lot of meat (not very environmental), or that they have xenophobic political parties too, to take some examples from Denmark, you will probably get disappointed and maybe even feel cheated.
This phenomenon can be explained by the theory of expectancy violations. In both examples, your expectations are “violated”, meaning that the reality does not match your expectations. Although in the first example, it is a positive violation, which will increase your happiness level, in the second example, it is a negative violation. We know from cognitive science that humans have a negative bias, meaning that “something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person’s behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative”. That is why a negative violation of your expectations will be much more harmful to your happiness than a positive one would be beneficial.
Although I have lived in Denmark for three years, I still regularly experience expectancy violation. No later than yesterday, I was walking down the street and saw some Danish girls I know, walking in my direction. As I was slowing down to chit-chat with them, they smiled at me, said a friendly “Hej!” and kept on walking past me. A few years ago, I would have worried about it the whole day, wondering what I had done for them not to want to talk to me, as it would be normal in France to stop and exchange some banalities (something like: “ça va? Oui et toi?”). But this time I paused, laughed at myself for forgetting that Danes don’t do small talk in random places, and moved on with my day.
The good news is that it is possible to change one’s expectations. Even better, if you prepare yourself before moving abroad and seek information about the country you are moving to in advance, your expectations are more likely to be set at a more realistic level. As you connect and meet with people and make efforts to understand the country you live in, it is easier to put things in perspective and meet expectancy violations with an open mind, or even laugh when you discover strange things in your new country. However, it is important to try to be aware of your expectations, as they often happen unconsciously and can truly harm your happiness.
French immigrant in Denmark.