The happy expat needs friends

We need other people around us. Aristotle already recognised this when he said that “the happy man needs friends”1. When expats move abroad, they need to make new friends and connections in the host country. Re-establishing social life is the most common concern for expats and their families2 – yet the social aspect of relocating abroad is often forgotten. Why should expats and those who support them pay attention to this aspect?

Loneliness is the new smoking

Loneliness is as bad for you as smoking, obesity and excessive drinking3. Social relationships are crucial for well-being, life satisfaction, happiness and health. A famous study is the Harvard Study of Adult Development which has been following the lives of 268 Harvard-educated men from diverse socio-economic backgrounds since 1938. The main takeaway of the current director of the study, Robert J. Waldinger, M.D., is that the happiest and healthiest participants were the ones who maintained close, intimate relationships and were satisfied with them. This buffers some of the effects of getting old. Working on maintaining relationships with other people is what makes someone happy and healthy – more so than having a good income4.

Quality over quantity

Even though it sometimes looks like the number of friends you have is important, it is actually about the quality of the relationship. Having at least two good friends and/or a partner helps well-being5 because it provides the emotional closeness that many people crave. Our innermost friendship circle, sometimes also called our support network, usually consists of only 5 people. Then we have another friendship circle of about 10 people we regularly socialise with. Professor Dunbar, who defined these friendship circles6, also noted that there is a maximum amount of 150 people (also called Dunbar’s number) with whom we can have a face-to-face social relationship. It is important to realise, however, that while good friends increase your well-being, interactions with strangers can also help. Having positive social interactions every day helps feeling good5, and talking to strangers is actually a much more positive experience than people often think.

The social side of relocating

Most organisations who employ expats focus only on the practical aspect – visa, house, schooling etc. – and forget to help expats and their families with making friends and truly settling into the host country. With my new book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble7, I hope to help with the social aspect of relocating abroad – how do expats build a new social network abroad and how can they make friends with locals? And how can organisations and the communities they live in support expats in all this?

This blog post is based on Chapter 1 of Breaking out of the Expat Bubble.


1 Aristotle, & Ross, W. (2013). Nicomachean Ethics: Cambridge University Press; book VIII  

2 The HSBC Expat Explorer Survey in 2010 (report Expat Experience) has focused on this topic and shows that women express even more worry about this than men (48% vs. 37%).

3 Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316.  

4 Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489-16493.  

5 Antonucci, T. C., Ajrouch, K. J., & Birditt, K. S. (2014). The convoy model: Explaining social relations from a multidisciplinary perspective. The Gerontologist, 54(1), 82-92.  

6 Dunbar, R. I. M. (2018). The Anatomy of Friendship. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(1), 32-51.  

7 Van Bakel, M. (2024). Breaking out of the Expat Bubble. How to Make Intercultural Connections and Friends. New York: Routledge.

One comment

  1. […] ‘The happy expat needs friends’ to truly thrive in the new country – but many stay within the ‘expat bubble’, where one only meets other expats or international students. It is important that one breaks out of this expat bubble and connects with locals. Such contact has many advantages but is not always easy to establish. […]

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