Laurie Santos is a Yale professor, well-known for her complimentary course, The Science of Well-Being. She also runs a podcast on Happiness called The Happiness Lab. Following are some key takeaways from her course, and what this means for expats.

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Reference Points

According to Santos, there are two main types of reference points through which we see the world: The first stems from hedonic adaptations, and the second stems from points of judgment. They both impact our levels of happiness.

What is hedonic adaptation?

Santos teaches that the hedonic adaptation is an adaptation of our minds because they are built to adjust to our surroundings over time. That is, events and circumstances that we used to find invigorating gradually become unstimulating, so we get used to a stimulus whether it’s negative or positive. We eventually perceive good things as unordinary and normal. 

When this happens, we reset our reference points for the future and think, “I would be happier if only ____ happened, or if only I had _____.”  It means that we develop a lack of appreciation of what we commonly experience, and are become more unhappy about where we are over time.

As expats, this means that we can eventually forget how thrilled we once were about arriving at and living in our host country, and about experiencing all that a new location and culture had to offer.

Pause to reflect:  What’s one thing you used to be excited about that has now become normal?

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How do we maintain appreciation and happiness, despite the hedonic adaptation?

One tip from Santos is to use negative visualizations: That is, imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have our job, if we had a lower salary, or if we were forced to move somewhere undesirable.

The next tactic is to “Make this day your last.” This strategy prompts us to envision that it is our last day in our current position, such as our last day at our job or the last day in our host country, in order to imagine what we would miss and what we would take advantage of if we had just 24 more hours.

A third strategy to practice is a mindfulness technique known as savoring, which means consciously slowing down to truly appreciate foods, sounds, and other small, microscopic moments of the day, wherever in the world we are. 

And finally, we can keep a gratitude journal to write down things big and small for which we are grateful – from small moments of light through the trees to seeing our children smile to having a roof over your head, from learning one new word in a second language to enjoying coffee with a friend or watching a sunset.

Think about it:  When you hear about the strategies of negative visualizations, making this day your last, savoring, or keeping a gratitude journal, which of these would you like to try?

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How do points of judgment work?

Points of judgment are other reference points that impact our happiness. This has to do with positioning and perspective, and is exemplified most famously in the studies showing that third-place gold medalists demonstrate greater levels of happiness than athletes who win silver. In the medalists’ case, bronze winners are content because they are thankful to be on the podium at all, while the silver medalists feel frustrated that they are so close to first place yet didn’t receive gold. 

Clearly, points of judgment impact our happiness levels based upon perspective. As expats, we experience similar circumstances when receiving an offer for a position we wanted in a desirable country versus an undesirable country, or receiving an offer for an unwanted position in a desirable versus undesirable country. Sometimes, we may need to step back and remember that we could have received no offer at all.

Other sets of reference points that we hold are comparing our present circumstances to where we think we should be, and comparing ourselves to others. For example, we might judge ourselves harshly for having less fluency in a language than we thought we would after a certain time period, or compare our career and salary to that of someone else. 

It’s important for us to remember that these are salient and completely irrelevant points at which we’re comparing ourselves.

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To reset from judgment reference points, we can: 

  1. Concretely re-experience.

We can revisit what we used to think by reflecting, truly going back to a physical place, or by rereading a journal.  For example, you might remember: What was it like before moving? Before a salary increase? How much of the language did you understand one year ago? Remember what brought you abroad and what led up to this point in time, and recognize the advancements you’ve made.

  1. Concretely observe.

We can seek an alternate reference point to see things from a different perspective.  For example, we might talk to someone who has never moved to a new country yet yearns to travel, spend time with someone who is a citizen of our host country to learn their perspective, or converse with someone who has lost their job in the pandemic.

  1. STOP.

The next strategy for avoiding social comparisons is called the STOP technique. To use it, we literally say STOP when we catch ourselves comparing ourselves to others. Then we intentionally change our thoughts and move on.

  1. Seek variety.

Variety counteracts negativity by shaking up hedonic adaptation. Find varieties both big and small to engage in daily, and…

  1. Counting your blessings.

Again, keep a gratitude journal of things big and small for which you are grateful. It strengthens these neural pathways to make positivity a habit.

Which strategy will you try first to reset your reference points and sail towards higher levels of happiness?


Santos, L. (2020). The science of well-being. The Science of Well-Being.