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Living abroad found to improve sense of self and decision-making

A new study led by Rice University demonstrates how people who live abroad gain a better sense of who they are and what they value in life. The perception of oneself becomes more clearly defined and stable with age, and the researchers found that living abroad can accelerate the process of self-discovery.

The experts conducted six studies involving 1,874 participants, including some individuals who had never lived outside of their home country.

The study revealed that, while living abroad, people reflect on the differences in cultural values at home compared to their host country. This reflection allows individuals to distinguish between the values which define them and the cultural norms that were merely a part of where they were raised.  

“In a world where living-abroad experiences are increasingly common and technological advances make cross-cultural travel and communication ever easier, it is critical that research keeps pace with these developments and seeks to understand how they affect people,” wrote the study authors.

The researchers also found that the length of time an individual lives abroad has more of an influence on self-awareness than the number of foreign countries the person has lived in.

The experts explained that the longer people live abroad, the more self-discerning reflections they experience. As a result, they are likely to develop a stronger understanding of themselves and ultimately make better decisions such as career choices.

Previous research has shown that going through a major life transition such as a divorce or the loss of a job can take away from a person’s self-understanding. According to the study, traveling abroad has the opposite effect and increases the extent to which self-beliefs are clearly and confidently defined.

“Our studies demonstrate that living abroad affects the fundamental structure of the self-concept by enhancing its clarity. The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote in the epigraph to his 1919 book ‘The Travel Diary of a Philosopher,’ ‘The shortest path to oneself leads around the world.’ Almost 100 years later, our research provides empirical evidence in support of this idea,” wrote the researchers.

The study is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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