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Happily living as an expat? Get your mindset right!

Others might envy you living a life as an expat in countries like Australia. Truth is, it can be really hard. What helps is to get your mindset right!

I am an early bird. Ideally my alarm goes off at 4:30 am. I am in the gym by 5:30 am and my world is perfect if my Fitbit tells me that at 6:17 am I have already accomplished 7137 of my daily recommended 10,000 steps. After that I am ready for my day and open to communicate with people around me. You see, the time between 4:30 and 5:30 am exclusively belongs to me, my Nespresso machine and my iPhone, on which I briefly scan my emails and check my LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Communicating with others – even if it is in form of a post in social media – seems impossible for me in these wee hours of the morning.

Except for today. One Twitter post literally shook me up so strongly that I immediately hammered a comment in my iPhone. Pamela Snow, Professor at La Trobe University, Psychologist and Speech Pathologist, re-tweeted a post that highlighted research results of a recent study by Mukadam N, et al. According to the study, bilingualism does not protect against cognitive decline or dementia.

My first reaction: “So what?” Exactly that become the first version of my comment. Luckily, my sense of reason and etiquette were awake too, and the actual comment I left showed up in a more modified, less bluntly German version.

What is the value of this news? 

So let us look at the research results again: In contrast to previous suggestions or hopes, bilingualism will not protect us as native German speakers or – to be more precise – respectively our native German speaking children who live and grow up here in Australia from Dementia. Ok. I understand. I see, that this might be disappointing and sad. However honestly: What kind of news is that? What meaning does it contain? What is its value? How does it weigh in?

Bilingualism has manifold advantages. They have been discussed in scientific and non-scientific as well as public and non-public discussions so many times, that I am not going to list any of them. I simply quote Charlemagne – often called the Father of Europe – who ones said: “To have another language is to possess another soul.” The more souls the better I find, since it is our soul which connects us to others.

Let us be clear: Bilingualism is something positive per se. The news that it does not protect us against cognitive decline or Dementia conveys negativity and makes us feel negative. Here is my point: This feeling of negativity that has been evoked in us is completely unnecessary!

I am an avid fan of Shawn Achor who for many years was a Professor at Harvard and is probably the most renowned (and humorous) researcher of happiness. Was it not for him and his inspiring Ted talk “The secret to better work” which I was watching with my 12-year-old son just last night, the Bilingualism-Dementia Twitter post would probably not have had such a strong impact on me.

The lense our brain uses shapes reality

In his 12 minutes talk Achor highlights the fact that the majority of news is not positive: murder, corruption, diseases, natural disasters. The consequence: With tongue in his cheek Achor calls it “the medical school syndrome”: “During the first year of medical training, as you read through a list of all the symptoms and diseases, suddenly you realise you have all of them.”

What Achor means is that not the reality shapes us, but the lens our brain sees the world around us. Consequently, when we choose another lens we see a different reality. We are the ones who choose. Are we looking at the world through a positive lens or a negative?

Achor suggests we are much better of choosing a positive lens: “90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted … by the way your brain processes the world. … What we found is that only 25 per cent of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75 per cent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of a threat.”

In other words: In succeeding to become more positive or happier, we automatically succeed to tap into our real potential. We are capable of working better and faster, act more intelligently and become more creative. In addition to that, if we are happier, our brain releases Dopamine. Dopamine has two tasks. On the one hand, it makes us even more happier, on the other hand it stimulates our learning centres in our brains, explains Achor. These learning centres enable us to adapt better to the world we live in.

As an expat you have to adapt all the time

This is exactly the reason why it is for us as expatriates – German, Austrians, Swiss citizens but also for expats from other nations who live in Australia – even more essential to adapt a positive mind set.

More than any others who live in a familiar environment – may it be a country, a city, a village – that they know and grew up in – we as expats must adapt. Day in, day out. At first sight the Australian culture may appear so similar to the German, Austrian or Swiss culture. However, on second sight, who amongst us has not realised how huge the differences between these cultures really are?

We need to find our way in a new country. We need to cope with and adapt to a new culture. We need to learn, articulate and express ourselves in a new language that has by far more vocabulary and nuances than are listed in a dictionary or are taught in a classroom or at university.

Every single day our learning centres in our brains need to be switched on, so we adapt as quickly as possible to our new environment to live a life afar from our country of birth. And what is more: to enjoy that life as much as we had hoped, wished and planned for. This process is relevant for an expat who recently arrived just as much as it is for an expat who has been living in Australia for over 20 years. I know that first hand.

The conscious decision to choose the lens

The conscious choice of seeing the world through a positive lens is of utmost help, when it comes to cope and reduce the stress that comes with living in a foreign country – stress that is in most cases hopefully paired with a huge amount of joy and excitement.

It is the positive lens that also helps us to live through days that will almost inevitably let us feel our homesickness – some will feel it overwhelmingly strong, some just a little bit. Or on days when nothing goes according to plan and we feel exhausted. Normally, friends and family would catch and comfort you on these days, but for an expat they are often thousands of kilometres away.

It is then, when you must rely on yourself and pull out the positive lense to look through and adapt a positive mind set. And you must assess the value or rather non-value of positivity of a news that is broad to you through whatever channel. Bilingualism? Whether it protects you against Dementia or not: Speaking two or more languages is of huge positive value. That is what to focus on. End of story. 

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