Working Abroad: Is Discomfort Such a Bad Thing?

People like to be comfortable. They like being wrapped in a cocoon of familiarity, doing all they can to escape any temporary discomfort. And while they may complain that their life is boring, or they wish they could make some drastic change, they secretly like their daily routine, their Starbucks and their Netflix.

Yet, there is something lost in all of this comfort. Humans are naturally inclined towards challenge, and most people would agree that, upon removing their Snuggie and heading out on an adventure, or in confronting a challenge, they feel more energized and alive, even if confronting the challenge involves temporary discomfort.

In the case of living abroad, discomfort manifests itself in the form of stress. And you need not seek it out; the daily challenges of navigating unfamiliar surroundings provides stress in droves.

But the stress that comes with living abroad also helps you feel alive, to be aware, to feel fulfilled and engaged in daily life. It forces you to you gawk at the goings-on around you, appreciate mundane tasks as something significant, and fills you with the sensation that what you are doing is unique. Which begs the question: is discomfort such a bad thing?

Yerkes-Dodson Law

To say that all stress is bad, or to say that all levels of stress are bad, would be to oversimplify the role stress plays in our lives. No-stress and over-stress can be equally detrimental; the former resulting in disinterest and disengagement, and the latter in helplessness and frustration. This range of stress levels is what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and life’s sweet-spot for stress is somewhere between disengagement and over-stress.  

Daily life abroad is not filled with insurmountable stress, but there is enough to keep you interested, alert, and present. Getting lost momentarily in the city, navigating new social situations you have never come across before, mastering chaotic and complex public transportation, and adjusting to local cuisine and customs are all examples of daily challenges you might face abroad that you wouldn’t at home.

two kids on the side of a snow mountain
The daily challenges you face abroad help keep you engaged.

These mini-stress inducers awaken you during what would otherwise be cause for disengagement with your surroundings. Walking to the office in your home town is a time for sleepily daydreaming or contemplating the tasks you know you will face at the office . Yet, that same walk to work, if instead placed in the squares and plazas of Madrid, is a far more engaging experience, even if it is riddled with the stress of being lost, asking for directions, and battling a language barrier.

As Tasha Eurich writes in “Discomfort is what You Feel When You are Growing,”:

“…the act of being uncomfortable can be a reward in and of itself. New situations trigger a unique part of our mid-brain that then releases dopamine, one of nature’s feel-good chemicals. But here’s what’s interesting: this region of the brain is only activated when we see or experience completely new things.”

Your brain wants the experience provided by those “completely new things,” and gets fired up by new sights, smells, tastes, and situations that it would not be challenged by at home. It is the stimulation of “new” that awakens the brain in a unique way.

Living in an unfamiliar environment, you exist exclusively outside your comfort zone, forced to navigate a wholly new arena. It is this experience of naivety that provides the exhilarating sensation you get stepping out of an airport in a foreign city for the first time: stress inducing because the situation is unknown, but within that stress is also a sense of being alive.  

Is Happiness a Good Measuring Stick Anyway?  

If I am being honest, I am happy very infrequently living abroad. It does happen, in small moments, when I have my morning coffee or am riding my motorcycle through the central Vietnamese hills, but those are “Instagram moments.” And while they are great while they last, my neutral state is on the other end of the spectrum from happy.

But I would argue happiness is a very odd way to measure life, especially life in your early 20s. I think that your 20s should be, in some ways, a bit painful or at least uncomfortable. Your early 20s are a time for big and sometimes painful decisions. You are often forced to chose between different career paths and begin sorting out who you are as a person and laying the foundation for your future, all while the vision of yourself in the present is distorted and unclear. It is a time for learning, taking risks, hardwork, failing (a lot of failing), apologizing, and guessing (wrong).

Guy wind surfing.
Your early 20s should be a time to take on challenges, even if it means being uncomfortable.

To measure life in your early to mid 20s by “happiness” is to miss the point of your early-20s entirely. The measure to use instead is how meaningful your life is. And there is a significant difference between happy and meaningful.

As Roy F. Baumeister explains in his essay “The Meaning of Life,” happiness is associated with the “satisfaction of desires,” feelings in the “present,” and “what people contribute to you.”

In contrast, people who live a life they describe as meaningful often experience far less “happiness,” but their experience is instead measured in being challenged and then overcoming those challenges. As Baumeister writes:

“People who consider themselves to have a meaningful life… encounter plenty of negative events, which of course reduce happiness….Stress, problems, worrying, arguing, reflecting on challenges and struggles — all these are notably low or absent from the lives of purely happy people, but they seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life.”

Dangling feet over a waterfall.
Living a meaningful life can almost mean living a less “happy” life.

It is these challenges, the stresses of balancing family back home with your adventures abroad or working in a new culture, that may at times have you with your hands clenching your hair in frustration. But overcoming the difficulties that being an outsider in an unfamiliar place also provides the sense that you are experiencing something unique and valuable and meaningful, in ways difficult to find back home.

And that is what it is all about. Accepting being uncomfortable, placing oneself beyond the confines of comfort and accepting those feelings of naivety and frustration and confusion and even failure, internalizing them, and then overcoming them. It is not a recipe for happiness,  but taking on the challenge now to reap the incalculable benefits later provides an undeniable sense of meaning.

Have you overcome the challenges of working internationally? What was your experience like? Let me know your story on Twitter at @12hrdifference.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.