Lonely Planet Writer

How living abroad helps define your sense of self

For many people, finding a sense of clarity in their lives can be quite a monumental task, but a new study about people living abroad may help them find what they’re looking for.

The research by a team of social scientists at Rice University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina in the US found that living abroad increases “self-concept clarity” meaning that individuals’ beliefs about themselves are clearly and confidently defined and consistent and stable over time.

Friends at the beach taking selfie
Thinking about making the move abroad? It could help clarify your sense of purpose! Image by GettyImages/martin-dm

The team conducted six studies involving 1874 participants and found that living abroad triggers “self-discerning reflections in which people grapple with the different cultural values and norms of their home and host cultures. These reflections are helpful in discovering which values and norms define who people are and which simply reflect their cultural upbringing.”

Group of Brazilian friends having fun at the desert
To conduct the studies, the authors recruited participants from online panels, the United States and international MBA programmes. Image by GettyImages/andresr

“In a world where living-abroad experiences are increasingly common and technological advances make cross-cultural travel and communication ever easier, it is critical that research keeps pace with these developments and seeks to understand how they affect people,” the authors wrote.

The research also found that depth (the length of time lived abroad) rather than breadth (the number of foreign countries lived in) enhances a clear sense of self.

Tourist female in Paris looking at city map, France- Europe
Extended periods of time spent in a foreign country can yield numerous benefits that come with a clear sense of self. Image by GettyImages/swissmediavision

According to the findings, “past studies have found that transitional experiences, such as getting divorced or losing a job, typically decrease individuals’ self-concept clarity. In contrast, this research examines the possibility that living abroad is a rare kind of transitional experience that actually increases self-concept clarity.”

Ranging from greater life satisfaction to decreased stress and improved job performance, the research highlights how living abroad can match an individual’s strengths and values. Having a clear sense of self, in turn, they note, could become increasingly important in today’s world with its unprecedented range of available career options.

For a copy of the study, you can email jfalk@rice.edu