How to Thrive after Moving

Arnaud and I in the Houston airport lounge, headed out for our move to Lausanne. August 23, 2018.

Arnaud and I in the Houston airport lounge, headed out for our move to Lausanne. August 23, 2018.

Over the course of my life, I’ve moved several times, starting with my move to college after I’d had it with high school.

Though I personally chose to go far from home for college, I found the move an emotional challenge. Still very shy (which I’ve since overcome), I had a hard time connecting with new people even in college, where everyone has to meet new people. Meeting new people in college comes with going to college.

I moved again for graduate school, and then again to London after a few career years in Chicago (where I’d done my graduate work). From London, I moved to Houston. From Houston, I moved to Lausanne.

In all these cases, I had some agency in moving. Maybe I didn’t personally select the geographical location; for example, I didn’t choose Baltimore or Chicago, yet I chose the schools there. And maybe I didn’t choose Lausanne, but I did choose to leave Houston and I own the decision to move as much as Arnaud does.

At the Geneva Airport train station with all our luggage, waiting for the train to Lausanne. August 25, 2018.

At the Geneva Airport train station with all our luggage, waiting for the train to Lausanne. August 25, 2018.

Having a say about relocation means I’ve had privilege. Choosing to live somewhere helps a person acclimate to the move. Maybe I experienced a few rough patches—or more than a few—in some of my relocations, yet I’ve never felt forced to relocate anywhere. And I’ve only felt stuck in a place where I didn’t want to live once in my life (or twice—though in both cases, it was the same location).

I’ve met many people who didn’t have the same good fortune. The more benign causes for reluctant moves include job relocations and moving to take care of ailing family members. Less benign causes include home-country strife and social dangers.

The Relocaters’ Hierarchy of Mental Wellness

In the hierarchy of mental wellness, I’ve seen three groupings of people who’ve moved:

  • The enthusiastic adopter: These people feel thrilled to have the opportunity to live in a new place. They want to do all the things.

  • The begrudging survivor: These people put one foot in front of the other and wear pained smiles when you ask about their moves. Begrudging survivors hang out predominantly with people from their same cultures and who speak their native languages. They try to recreate their former homes in their new homes.

  • The bitter and spiteful: These people feel incredible anger at whatever person or situation forced them to relocate. They often stay at home as much as possible; simmer in frustration and wallow in the misery of their thwarted, lost lives; and cultivate hatred of their new places of residence.

People can move between these groupings; setbacks can drop a person down a level easily. And everyone who moves has setbacks—even the people who chose to relocate.

We all shift into bad emotional places at times. The danger comes in getting stuck permanently in one of the latter two groupings.

Survival Tips for Relocaters

If you’ve moved or plan to move, a few survival tips gleaned from my personal relocation experiences will help keep you at the top level of the hierarchy above:

  • Though you won’t thrive in a new place if you only stick to meeting people who speak the same language and have the same culture, you should still find an expat group that has people from your home country and who will understand the emotional and physical toll moving can take. Especially as you acclimate, having these people as resources and friends will truly help.

  • You have something you’ve always wanted to learn, right? Great—now is the time to take a class: You have the added motivator of wanting to meet new people and understand a new culture. Find a class in an area of interest and take it. If you can’t speak the language, find a physical-skills course like a beginner sports program or a flower-arranging class. You won’t need to converse as much, the instructions come demonstrated to you (so you don’t have to truly understand the language to learn something), and you’ll get in some language learning in the process.

  • If you don’t speak the language of your new country, take a language class. I signed up with a French language tutor within days of our move to Lausanne. Learning French to at least a conversational level as quickly as possible turned into one of my top priorities. If you can afford a private or small-group tutor, even better—your teacher will turn into a cultural coach and a personal guide to your new location: You can ask him or her practical questions at every session and practice your new language as you do. My questions have included such gems as “Why can’t I find vanilla extract anywhere?” and “How does a person go about getting new contact lenses, exactly?”

  • Most places have experts who help newbies acclimate. If you can, find a cultural coach or guide. In our case, Arnaud’s university connected us with a cross-cultural coach to help us understand our new country. Although we had read several books about living in Switzerland before we moved, our coach gave us helpful practical advice and a lot of context on why we would experience what we would experience.

  • Join a group of people doing something you love, whether a sport or a hobby. Join a tennis club and participate in a ladder. Find the local chess club. Volunteer for a cause that inspires you. In doing so, you’ll stay involved with an activity that makes you happy, meet new people, and find some kindred spirits—all important components of keeping the doldrums away when you suddenly live far from everything and everyone you know.

  • Work to cultivate your appetite for adventure. Maintain a mindset of discovery: When something goes sideways, consider it an experience. Try to have fun and to learn about yourself and your new place with the unexpected surprises—even if you wouldn’t have welcomed them. Further, explore your new country or region in the same way you would have done if you’d come there as a tourist. I didn’t like living in Houston, yet experiencing all the things the city had to offer helped make it interesting and fun.

  • You’ll meet several people as part of the logistics of your relocation, from movers to real estate agents to building managers. Ask your relocation resources for every referral and resource you need. These people meet newbies all the time, and they have a wealth of knowledge. Some of them will think to offer it—and others won’t volunteer up advice and insights unless you ask.

Moving never comes easily, even when you’ve chosen to do it. Everyone you meet who has relocated will have sob stories, horror stories—and funny stories, too. Your attitude will make every difference between your thriving in a new place and your falling into despair.

And who wants to wallow if they can avoid it?

If you’ve made any significant moves in your life, how did you handle them? What advice can you share?