Each year, the world becomes more international and more aspects of daily life go digital. More corporations are crossing borders and creating more international work opportunities, thereby enticing more people to move abroad to global epicentres and making more expats and an increasingly multicultural world.
Those who have lived abroad will agree that settling in a new country is a daunting and difficult task, especially if done alone. It's easy for expats to feel alone in a new city and that loneliness can lead to various mental health issues, which in turn can mean individuals struggle to reach their full potential.
Making connections can be difficult even in our own hometowns, so it’s understandable that making connections is even more difficult in a foreign country where people have different lifestyles, habits, thought processes, ways of life – as well as existing social circles. Adding to the issue is the fact that a large portion of human interaction has been replaced by instant messaging and social media.
Globalisation and digitisation has formed a society plagued with loneliness and isolation. We long for stability but find it difficult to make commitments in a world full of choice, possibility, and opportunity. The social structures of modern society have created large cities full of people who are physically present but emotionally disconnected. Human civilisation may have progressed too quickly in terms of technological accomplishments, leaving interpersonal connections by the wayside and struggling to adapt to an ever-increasingly international and digital world.
Why “home” and stability is important to health
The roots of human civilisation stem from a natural gathering of local peoples forming symbiotic communities – essentially a “home” that is safe and helps ensure the survival of their like kind. However, in the past several centuries, and especially in the past several decades, the sudden boom of global technological advancement has created gatherings of more unlike peoples such as from different cultural backgrounds. This in turn produces more potential for social stress and higher barriers to interpersonal relationships.
Humans are social beings, forming family units, social circles, and building cities so not to live in isolation. A study titled Social Integration and Health: The Case of the Common Cold carried out by Dr Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, reveals that people who are socially isolated with three or fewer meaningful relationships are 4.2 times more likely to develop illness.
Furthermore, the belief that suicide rates are higher during the holidays is a myth – most studies found that suicide rates are lower before and during the holiday season, likely because people with suicidal thoughts find themselves surrounded by friends and family. Expats, however, being thousands of miles from home, may not have the same familiar protection during such events that promote togetherness.
On instant messaging and social media
An additional problem in the social aspect of modern society is that much of interpersonal communication has moved online. Nowadays, we can communicate without physically being in each other’s presence. Telephone conversations and instant messaging allows low-effort human contact that fills a measure of our emotional need for human connection but leaves out some imperative aspects. We thus feel generally sated but like something is slightly amiss. Modern communication is a smoke screen that omits physical presence and contact, and body language and present empathy. Instant messaging gives each participating party time to craft responses, removing the intimate element of “being in the moment.”
At the same time, social media allows us to show only the highlights of our lives while hiding aspects that may not be “perfect”. This creates a situation where we compare the full extent of our own lives to the highlight reels of others, leading us to believe that our lives are somehow “lesser” or “lacking” and causing feelings of inadequacy and isolation.
Forming human connections in a digital and global world
On a positive note, the rise of the Internet and social media allows us to connect with others from the safety of our own homes. This is especially helpful if such people find it difficult to associate in real life, or are suffering from a mental issue and afraid to speak up in existing social circles for fear of ostracism. Platforms such as Samaritans – one of the first suicide hotlines in the world – aim to provide aid in times of need. Reddit offers monitored sections where people can discuss issues without fear of backlash. The #MeToo movement is allowing victims of sexual assault to speak more freely and with less stigma. Bloggers sharing personal stories provide opportunities for others to feel less alone.
There are various online platforms that help people find others to associate with. For example, Meetup allows anyone and everyone to form communities and host events, many of which are targeted for expats to help them feel less alone. Facebook groups and events provide a similar service from the comfort of a familiar social media platform.
How locals can help expats settle into their new lives
Offline, when it comes to global communities, forming human connections is a two-way street that may require a bit more effort than forming connections with someone from our own culture – but also offers a lot of reward in the form of truly learning about other ways of life. Locals can welcome expats into their own social circles, and expats can take initiative to find locals to befriend.
Businesses can help combat the issue of loneliness among expats – as well as all employees – by providing support for mental health and encouraging friendship among teams and throughout the company. Having a friends first, colleagues second approach can be highly beneficial to all employees, expats in particular, and help everyone feel less isolated and like they are a part of a community.
If you are struggling with mental health issues or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please speak to someone – there are various services available free of charge.