Health and Wellness

Retaining a Positive Outlook In The Face Of Challenges When Living Overseas

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by Cyrus Kioko


Jet lag, language mishaps, and a mysterious urge to adopt local customs like they’re going out of style — welcome to the rollercoaster ride of living overseas! Whether you’re chasing your dreams or chasing the perfect sunset on a faraway shore, life as an expat isn’t always a piña colada on the beach. But hey, before you start drafting postcards to your troubles back home, let’s talk about the art of retaining a positively tropical outlook when life serves up a slice of sour.

Retaining a positive perspective in the face of challenges when living overseas starts with understanding what positivity entails. This awareness sets the stage for cultivating a positive mindset through strategies such as working on your emotional intelligence, exploring therapeutic options, etc.

Of course, there’s a bit more to understanding what a positive mindset is and how to nurture it than we’ve scratched the surface of. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve deeper into the secrets of fostering optimism and provide practical, actionable tips that will not only brighten your expat journey but also empower you to overcome any challenge you encounter overseas with a smile.

So, grab your virtual passport, and let’s embark on this enlightening adventure together.

What’s a Positive Outlook?

Before we take a deep dive into today’s topic, let’s quickly define the term “positive outlook” to give you an idea of where the goalpost is when you’re striving to maintain a sunny attitude in the face of challenges.

A positive outlook, often dubbed as a positive mindset or attitude, means embracing optimism and hope, even when life throws a curveball your way. It’s all about seeing the brighter side of things, being resilient in the face of adversity, and maintaining an overall optimistic view of the world― in other words, seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty.

Wondering if you’ve got this all-important ability?

Here are a couple of traits to look out for:

  • Optimism. Are you the type who thinks good things can still happen, even when life throws curveballs? If so, you’re off to a good start. 
  • Resilience. You bounce back from setbacks like a champ, always ready for the next challenge.
  • Hope. You believe in a brighter tomorrow and are willing to work for it.
  • Gratitude. You find joy in the little things, like a perfect cup of coffee or a beautiful sunset.
  • Solution-Oriented. Problems? You’re all about solutions, not just dwelling on the issues.
  • Self-Confidence. You trust in your own abilities and know you can conquer whatever comes your way.
  • Open-Mindedness. New ideas? You’re all ears, always up for exploring fresh opportunities.
  • Empathy. Understanding others and lending a hand is your thing, and it makes you feel good too.

Now, let’s get a couple of things clear:

First, having a positive outlook does NOT mean ignoring all your problems or pretending everything’s perfect. Tackling challenges with a can-do spirit, learning from life’s ups and downs, and generally keeping a hopeful and upbeat vibe isn’t exactly the same as sweeping all your problems under the rug and acting like everything’s hunky-dory.

Second, people can have varying levels of a positive outlook because optimism, one of the top traits of someone with a positive mindset, is both a skill and a personality trait. 

What do I mean by that?

Let’s tackle the “personality trait” part first. If you take a closer look at the people around you, you’ll notice that some are more optimistic than others. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick social experiment you can do on your friends, family, and acquaintances; anyone willing to participate: 

  1. Create a list of statements that relate to optimism and pessimism. These statements should cover a range of scenarios, from personal situations to global events. For this experiment, you can use these two statements: “I believe that good things are likely to happen in the future,” and “I tend to see the positive side of difficult situations.”
  2. Present this list to your participants and have them rate how much they agree or disagree with those statements on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 and 5 represent strong disagreement and strong agreement, respectively. Make sure they understand how to use the rating scale.
  3. Collect the responses and calculate an optimism score for each participant by adding up their ratings for all the statements. Higher scores indicate higher levels of optimism and vice versa.
  4. Analyze the results and compare the outcomes.

If you have a large enough group of participants (like, say five to ten people), there’s a very good chance the optimism levels won’t be the same. And if you increase the number of statements made in Step 1 and diversify the scenarios they relate to, I can almost guarantee that you’ll notice much more variation among your participants. 

It’s not by chance;  optimism is a characteristic that some individuals naturally possess to a greater degree than others. Some people are naturally optimistic, while others may lean more toward pessimism.

Here are the different types of people on the optimism spectrum to give you an idea of where you’re at:

  • Optimists. These individuals tend to have a consistently positive outlook on life. They see challenges as opportunities, have a hopeful attitude, and often maintain a sense of resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Realists. Realists strike a balance between optimism and pessimism. They assess situations realistically, weigh pros and cons, and adjust their outlook accordingly. They tend to be more flexible in their perspective.
  • Pessimists. These individuals operate on the lowest level of optimism; they tend to have a consistently negative outlook. They often anticipate the worst in most situations, have a higher likelihood of giving in to despair, and struggle to find the positive aspects of life.
  • Conditional Optimists. This lot has a positive outlook in certain areas of their lives but not in others. For example, they might be optimistic about their career but pessimistic about their personal relationships.
  • Situational Optimists. Last but not least, we have people whose levels of optimism vary based on what’s going on in their lives. They’re optimistic when things are going their way and pessimistic when adversity strikes.

Now let’s talk about optimism being a skill. 

While we all have varying natural (or rather, baseline) levels of optimism, it’s not fixed or unchangeable. Optimism can be cultivated and developed as a skill. This is often referred to as “learned optimism,” and it’s usually nurtured through various deliberate efforts to develop a positive outlook.

When you’re facing challenges overseas, you’re going to rely more on learned optimism to remain positive – especially if your baseline levels are naturally low or have been compromised by any challenges you may be facing.

So, how do you cultivate and retain a positive attitude when life overseas seems like a never-ending bumpy ride?

Let’s find out in the next section.

X Tips For Retaining a Positive Outlook When Facing Challenges Abroad

Here are the best things you can do to stay positive when life overseas keeps handing you lemons:

Work on Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence, often abbreviated as EI or EQ (Emotional Quotient), is a psychological construct that refers to someone’s ability to identify, understand, manage, and effectively use their own AND other people’s emotions. It involves a range of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills – self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills – that contribute to better emotional well-being, effective communication, and successful interpersonal relationships. Think a  roided-up combination of “knowing yourself” and “people skills.”

Working on your EQ is by far the best thing you can do to stay optimistic in the face of challenges when living overseas because it helps you control your emotions. Let’s face it; expat life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’s culture shock, homesickness, language barriers, and enough stress and loneliness to make anyone feel like they’re stuck in a maze.

EQ gives you the superpower-esque ability to keep your cool in the midst of it all. It arms you with all the tools you need to keep your emotions in check, ensuring that when life squeezes those lemons, you’ve got the resilience to turn them into something sweet.

Having emotional intelligence also helps with cultural understanding. When you’re in a new place, you’re bound to encounter people from different cultures with unique customs and communication styles. Emotional intelligence helps you empathize with their perspectives, even when they differ from your own, nurturing understanding and respect.

Last but not least, working on your EQ can help you build and sustain relationships. Making friends and building a support network overseas is one of the biggest perks of being a location rebel. Unfortunately, it’s something many globetrotters struggle with. Working on your EI can help you connect with people on a deeper level because it boosts your social skills.

Wondering how you can work on this handy skill? Here’s what to practice:

  • Self-awareness. Start by getting in touch with your own emotions. Regularly check in with yourself to understand how you’re feeling and why. Create a journal and revisit it regularly to identify your emotional triggers and behavior patterns. You can also ask trusted friends, family, or mentors for honest feedback about your emotional strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Emotion regulation. Practice techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or meditation to manage stress and maintain emotional balance. If those don’t work for you, you can always choose other stress management methods such as exercising or seeking counseling – pretty much anything goes as long as it helps you stay calm and centered, especially in emotionally charged situations. 
  • Empathy. Make a habit of paying close attention when others are speaking and try to understand their feelings and perspectives. Try to put yourself in their shoes, especially if they’re from a different culture. You’ll be surprised how much more you understand where they’re coming from.
  • Social skills. Improve your ability to communicate effectively. Learning the local language can be super helpful, and so can practicing active listening and working on your conflict resolution skills.
  • Learn from mistakes. Analyze what went wrong and how you can respond differently next time. This is how you grow as a person. It’s also a great way to avoid stress because it allows you to view your slip-ups as lessons instead of dwelling on them.

Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapeutic approach that focuses on the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It’s designed to help individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to emotional distress and mental health issues.

Mental health experts have found this form of treatment effective for all kinds of issues, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Marital problems
  • Eating disorders
  • Severe mental illness
  • Grief
  • Sleep disorders
  • phobias

In fact, numerous studies have found CBT to be just as effective as –if not better than– many similar approaches. For instance, a meta-analysis of studies that compared CBT to similar therapies found that CBT is more effective for depressive disorders and anxiety than alternative approaches, especially psychodynamic therapy.

And, this is just one example; there’s a ton of scientific evidence backing the effectiveness of CBT and its superiority to other similar treatments. The American Psychological Association even goes a step further to state that CBT is as effective as or superior to not just similar treatments, but also some psychiatric medications!

So yeah, CBT is pretty effective, especially if you’re just trying to remain positive in the face of challenges (as opposed to being too depressed to get out of bed or having a chronic addiction or mental disorder).

The question is, how can you use it?

You have two options: work with a mental health expert, or take the self-help route.

I recommend working with an expert because they know more about the subject than the average person. But if that’s not an option for you for whatever reason, you can take the self-help route as long as you’re not suffering from psychological issues that are more severe than everyday stressors.

Here’s how to go about it:

  1. Find self-help CBT resources and familiarize yourself with the fundamentals. I’d highly recommend books written by reputable authors because it’s not always easy to verify the authenticity of CBT apps and online courses. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies keeps a list of self-help books that they’ve given the stamp of approval, and I think that would be a great place to start your search.
  2. Self-assess. Start by identifying what you’re struggling with. Are you having trouble dealing with culture shock and homesickness, navigating language barriers, or managing work-related stress? Whatever it is, make sure you clearly recognize it. For illustration purposes, let’s take Gary, who’s finding it hard to fit into his new community.
  3. Recognize negative thought patterns. Keep a journal to track your thoughts and emotions in these challenging situations. Identify patterns of negative or irrational thinking. Let’s say Gary notices thought patterns along the lines of, “I’ll never fit in here.” 
  4. Challenge negative thoughts. When you notice negative thought patterns, challenge them. Ask yourself if these thoughts are based on facts or assumptions. What’s the evidence for and against these thoughts? At this stage, Gary would ask himself, “What evidence do I have that supports the belief that I’ll never fit in? Have I successfully adapted to new situations before?”
  5. Define clear and achievable goals for what you want to achieve through self-administered CBT. Make sure your goals are specific and measurable. An example of such a goal for Gary would be, “to initiate conversations and participate in at least three social or cultural events within the local community every month for the next three months.” Doing that would help him fit in.
  6. Conduct behavioral experiments. Test your beliefs and hypotheses by gradually exposing yourself to the situations that trigger negative thoughts. This can help you reevaluate and adjust your perspective. For Gary, these experiments would involve actively seeking opportunities to engage with locals by attending cultural events, joining community activities, or initiating conversations. Gradually, these experiences may challenge his initial belief that he can’t fit in.
  7. Build coping strategies: Learn and practice coping strategies that work best for you. Depending on what you’re grappling with, these could include relaxation techniques, problem-solving skills, and self-compassion. Gary, for instance, may choose to learn and practice self-compassion by reminding himself that it’s okay to struggle to fit in at first, and doing so doesn’t mean he won’t eventually create a fulfilling life abroad. By viewing his struggles this way, he changes his mindset from viewing himself as a misfit to recognizing that he’s just being human (in other words, struggling as any other “normal” person would).

Remember that CBT (whether expert-guided or self-administered) isn’t something you do once and forget about; it’s an ongoing process. The more you practice and apply CBT techniques in your daily life as an expat, the better you’ll become at retaining a positive outlook in the face of challenges abroad.

Celebrate Small Wins

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this one before: “Celebrate small wins.” I mean, isn’t that advice about as unique as a cat meme on the internet? Well, it turns out that this age-old advice is not just another empty platitude.

Believe it or not, celebrating wins 一 whether they’re as colossal as finally assembling that IKEA bookshelf without extra parts or as pint-sized as successfully parallel parking in a tight spot 一 can actually make you happier. It can also help you maintain a more positive outlook on life, even when it feels like the universe is playing dodgeball with your dreams.

I know this sounds like something your yoga instructor would say right before you “find your inner peace.” But it’s all legit, and there’s actual science behind it.

The claim that celebrating all wins can increase happiness is rooted in the PERMA model, the brainchild of the guru of all things positive psychology, Martin Seligman. Now, before you roll your eyes and mutter “Not another one,” I promise this isn’t your run-of-the-mill motivational jargon. 

The PERMA model is widely accepted and respected in the field of psychology and has been the basis for numerous studies and research on well-being and positive emotions. And no, it doesn’t involve chanting mantras in front of a mirror or hugging it out with a tree.

Let’s break it down, shall we? 

PERMA, my friends, is an acronym for the five things that serve as the building blocks of a happy, fulfilling life:

  • Positive emotion: This is the warm-and-fuzzy department. Think joy, happiness, and contentment — those emotions that make you want to do a little happy dance (and, hey, dancing is always encouraged).
  • Engagement: It’s about getting lost in something more meaningful than endless cat and dog videos (I understand, it’s a tough choice). In all seriousness though, it means being fully absorbed and present in activities and experiences that you find fulfilling.
  • Positive Relationships: Basically, having a social life. Building and maintaining healthy, supportive relationships can significantly contribute to your happiness and overall well-being
  • Meaning: This is pretty self-explanatory: figuring out why you exist.
  • Accomplishment: Ah, the sweet taste of success. We all love it, whether it’s nailing a work project or successfully making your grandma’s secret apple pie recipe.

Now, here’s the kicker: Celebrating small wins nurtures each of these “happiness prerequisites.” Here’s how:

  • Positive Emotion: Celebrating feels good, and it generates positive emotions. You can’t help but smile when you achieve something, no matter how minor.
  • Engagement: Celebrating keeps you engaged in the moment. Whether it’s raising a toast or doing a happy dance (again, super encouraged), you’re fully present.
  • Positive Relationships: Sharing your wins often involves loved ones, strengthening those bonds. They become part of your celebration, and it brings you closer.
  • Meaning: Even small wins can give your life a sense of purpose. They show that your efforts lead to something positive and meaningful.
  • Accomplishment: The very act of celebrating reinforces your sense of accomplishment. It’s like giving yourself a high-five in the mirror.

So the next time you’re tempted to dismiss “celebrate small wins” as just another cliche, remember that there’s real science behind it and that it can be an express elevator to a happier you!

Keep a Circle of Optimists

Ever heard of the phrase “Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you the kind of person you are”? Okay, maybe I paraphrased a bit, but you get where I’m going with this: Your social circle isn’t just a group of people you hang out with – it’s a dynamic force that influences you on multiple levels, including how positive you can be in the face of challenges.

Having an optimistic social circle can help you retain a positive outlook in the face of challenges when living overseas by:

  • Inspiring you to be more positive in the face of challenges. When you’re living in a foreign land – encountering unfamiliar customs and trying to weave your way through language barriers (among other challenges), – it’s easy to feel like a castaway in a sea of unfamiliarity. This is precisely when your social circle becomes your anchor. Surrounding yourself with optimists means you’re in the company of those who see challenges as opportunities. They’re the ones who will remind you that you can conquer any obstacle that comes your way.
  • Lifting your spirits when things aren’t working out. Ever noticed that being around upbeat, positive people can instantly lift your spirits? Optimistic friends radiate positivity, and it’s contagious. Their optimism can be a lifebuoy in a sea of negativity, helping you stay afloat when the going gets tough.
  • Helping you sort out your problems (whenever they can, of course). Optimists are not just starry-eyed dreamers; they’re excellent problem-solvers. Their knack for finding solutions when faced with adversity can be a game-changer in your life abroad. When you’re stumped by a challenge, your optimistic friends will likely have creative ideas on how to navigate through it.
  • Offering healthy emotional support. The key word here is “healthy.” Pessimists can sometimes offer unhealthy emotional support by validating any negative feelings you might be having, which is the last thing you need when the walls seem to be caving in. Optimists do the exact opposite: they always try to point out the silver lining in difficult situations, giving you a constant, much-needed reminder that setbacks are just stepping stones on your journey.
  • Helping you process stress. The calm amidst the storm – that’s what your optimistic friends can be. They tend to experience lower stress levels and have a knack for maintaining their composure. In the whirlwind of expat life, their steady presence can be like a cool breeze on a hot day.
  • Creating a positive atmosphere. Your social circle sets the tone for your environment. Imagine living in a place where positivity is the air you breathe, where challenges are seen as opportunities, and where you’re surrounded by a sense of hope. That’s the atmosphere that an optimistic social circle can create for you.

So choose your social circle wisely. This should be easy to do if you take my first suggestion on this list (working on your emotional intelligence) seriously. Emotional intelligence equips you with the skills to assess the emotional qualities of potential friends, allowing you to weed out Debbie downers when choosing your social circle.

Exercise Regularly

Exercising is great for your self-esteem, which can sometimes tank when the chips are down. Physical activity is also associated with better mental and physical health, not to mention that it triggers the release of endorphins (the “feel good” hormones) to help you manage stress. 

You probably know all that, so I won’t go on and on about it.

What you might not know (or rather, not appreciate enough) is the fact regular exercise can enhance your mental resilience. Mental resilience is particularly important when you’re trying to stay positive in the face of adversity. Having it in abundance means adversity will have a tough time turning your smile upside down. 

Another underappreciated benefit of regular exercise is that it adds structure and consistency to your life. A well-structured routine can offer a sense of normalcy and control, which is particularly valuable when adapting to a new environment.

Last but not least, exercise can serve as a healthy coping mechanism when facing challenges. It’s one of the few constructive ways to release pent-up emotions and clear your mind, which makes it easier to approach difficulties with a more positive mindset.

Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
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