By Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist
Digital nomadism is undoubtably on the rise. The Covid-19 pandemic made working online a necessity, and for many of us this has continued. Working in this way opens up opportunities to live and work differently.
As more people are choosing to work digitally, companies are beginning to offer more flexibility to their staff and countries are offering specific visas to those choosing this lifestyle. Its not just solo travellers choosing this lifestyle either, this BBC article illustrates the rise in digital nomad families.
Digital nomadism is here to stay, but how can those choosing this lifestyle look after their well-being? To answer this question I interviewed two experts to give their thoughts on thriving as a digital nomad. Firstly. Wendy Kendall, a Registered Occupational Psychologist with decades of experience helping employees to manage the transition to working abroad. Secondly, Shaun Busuttil, a travel writer, anthropologist and PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Shaun has been a nomad for ten years, and his research looks at how nomads reconcile various tensions, struggles and dilemmas that come with a life lived on the move.
The well-being benefits of digital nomadism
Shaun explained how freedom is often the main driver of adopting a digital nomad lifestyle:
“The ability to work wherever and whenever you want gives nomads a degree of freedom that they just don’t have back home. Freedom is what draws people into the lifestyle and what keeps them there.”
The allure of freedom is obvious, and you won’t be surprised to hear that greater personal freedom is associated with increased well-being (Egal and Maridal, 2015). Having freedom, choice and control allows us to live in line with what is important to us and to spend our time and energy on activities and pursuits that we find fulfilling and meaningful. These are positive steps towards optimal well-being.
That’s not to say that everyone would benefit from becoming a digital nomad. Those with certain preferences and personality types are more likely to seek out and thrive in a digital nomad lifestyle; Those who enjoy travel of course, those who are higher on the openness to experience dimension of personality, and those who are more psychologically flexible. On the other hand, if you are traditional and you like routine and home comforts, then this lifestyle may not be a good fit for you!
In terms of other benefits, there has been some good evidence that living abroad is associated with developing a clearer sense of self (Adam et al., 2018). This may be because moving abroad can be a challenge to our sense of self, and that this can actually be a good thing: This process allows us to rebuild our sense of self in a positive way. See the next section for more on this.
There is also evidence that living in more than one culture can increase creativity and contribute to increased innovation at work (Tadmor et al., 2012). This is an impressive finding. For more on the link between travel and creativity see our previous article here.
The well-being challenges
Social isolation and loneliness
Shaun highlighted that “Social isolation and loneliness are big challenges. Travelling to new places continually places nomads on the margins of the host society where they’re new and don’t know anyone. The search for community and connection are thus constant preoccupations for them.”
It is well established that loneliness can contribute to increased anxiety and depression and have a negative effect on our well-being generally. Human beings are a social species and connection with others is a primary need for us. If we lack human connection this can have a negative impact on us very quickly. Given this, maintaining your existing support network or finding ways to build one is an essential task for digital nomads.
Reduced energy for forming new connections
Shaun explained that having to constantly build temporary relationships can be a challenge:
“This community is characterised by its transience: people come together in a place for a while but then ultimately leave, and so social groups inevitably dissolve and need to be re-formed, again and again and again. Whilst some nomads appreciate the fresh start to form new connections, most grow tired over time.”
Forming new connections with other people is an emotionally demanding task. At first we may feel excited by being able to meet people who have similar interests and have chosen a similar lifestyle. However repeatedly making these relationships and then having to let them go can deplete our emotional resources and it is understandable to begin to feel burned out by this process.
Shaun explained that over time some nomads begin to manage this by slowing down “Many nomads begin long for more stable and situated relationships, usually making them slow down and stay in places for longer stretches of time”
Spending longer in each place can be an effective way to minimise the impact of short-term relationships on your emotional energy.
Craving a more stable routine
In the same way that constantly building new relationships can be draining, being faced with new challenges, customs and tasks can be exhausting. In more traditional lifestyles when we are settled into a stable routine, life is predictable and this takes less cognitive and emotional energy than facing new situations on a daily basis.
Adjusting to new cultures and customs requires psychological flexibility. In the same way as new relationships, initially this will feel exciting but it is likely that your energy for novelty will deplete over time. Again spending longer in each place will help you to manage the impact of this.
Wendy Kendall, a Registered Occupational Psychologist explained that the change we experience in our identity when we move abroad can be a significant challenge. When we live in one place often we build a strong sense of where we fit and what we are good at. Moving to another country can really shake this, and often people can feel less like themselves for a little while.
Identity is something that we don’t necessarily notice when things are settled and life is going well. But when we move into a new situation that is less settled, we can feel less sure of ourselves. This can be the case even if the move is positive and if we made a choice to adopt a digital nomad lifestyle.
How to look after your well-being as a digital nomad
The following tips are designed to help you to navigate the challenges of a digital nomad lifestyle:
Be mindful of how often you move and how sustainable this is
Shaun highlights that many nomads begin to slow down over time as a way of looking after themselves:
“Although the appeal of constant movement is attractive to most newbie nomads, more experienced nomads have learnt that the key to staying happy and healthy is slowing down and staying put in one spot for longer periods of time. This allows them to form more fulfilling social relationships and allows them to establish a routine that is vital for their overall productivity, health and well-being.”
As moving frequently and making short term friendships can be emotionally depleting, it is helpful to be mindful of this early on. This can help you to think about how you can proactively maintain your energy and enthusiasm. It is better to be aware of the possibility of burnout and to slow down than to get to that stage without realising.
Build a steady support network early on
Social support is usually the best predictor of well-being and how people cope in most situations. We need to mindful of our need for social connections and to put in the work of developing and maintaining our support network.
You will likely want to make connections with other digital nomads. This can be very affirming and can help you to navigate some of the practical challenges you may face.
However, remember to also spend time and energy on longer term relationships in your life. The people in your life who will provide stable and consistent support might not be the same people who are the most enthusiastic about your lifestyle choice. Ask yourself who are the people you can phone at any time to talk about everyday things? Who do you want to call on when you’re upset? Put effort into maintaining these relationships even when things are going well.
Having solid networks can help you manage the impact of the cycle of more transient friendships.
Be mindful of how you use social media
Digital nomads often use social media as a way of coping with loneliness and isolation (Miguel et al., 2023). This is an understandable strategy but it is important to be mindful of how we use social media, as it can actually have a detrimental effect in some instances: For example a recent study showed that limiting students’ use of social media could decrease feelings of loneliness and depression (Hunt et al., 2018). This suggests that social media may contribute to feelings of loneliness.
My advice would be to use social media to keep in touch with your support network and to reach out to new people in your current destination. Try to limit the amount of time that you spend scrolling through. We all know logically that social media is not representative of real life, but on if we spend hours each day on these platforms it can really begin to skew our perception of what is normal.
When it comes to platforms like Instagram and Tiktok, try to follow accounts where you feel a connection to the person, or where the accounts are interesting or educational in some way. If we follow people who seem to have realistic experiences, appear to appreciate these, tell you about their learning and growth, these accounts are more likely to be helpful and realistic.
Have routines and practices that ground you
With all this change it is important for you to build a sense of stability. Practices such as mindfulness and yoga can be regularly built into our day wherever we are, so aim to make these part of your daily routine.
If this is not your thing then find whatever helps you to feel grounded. For some people this might be a weekly call to their parents to discuss the everyday and mundane that is going on back in our hometown. For some it will be that monthly catch up with an old friend via zoom. Watching familiar TV programmes is another helpful option. Life may be exciting at the beginning of our journey but don’t underestimate the importance of small things that maintain our sense of continuity and connect us with our history.
Using your strengths in different places and environments
When our identity is challenged it is important to be able to recognise and use our strengths and skills. This is a way to help us to feel competent and more like ourselves, which can help us to thrive through any transition. Wendy Kendall explains further:
“Become familiar with your own strengths and find examples of your strengths in action in a new place. Strengths are things that helps us to feel more competent and to deal with life. They also feel very authentic to us when we use them. That can counter the loss of identity that we may experience when moving to a new place. So when we are using our strengths we may feel like “I’m still me, and I’m still able to use some of my strengths even though I may need to use them in a slightly different way because I’m in a different environment”.
Use journaling make sense of your journey
Wendy added that “One activity that I would definitely recommend is journaling in order to make sense of the move. In particular for digital nomads, I would suggest journalling around stories of strengths, connections and gratitude.”
I completely agree with Wendy’s thoughts here; using journalling to make sense of our experiences is an important way to manage any transition. In this article I’ve written a series of journal prompts to help you to get started with this.
Connection to place
I suspect that if you are a digital nomad, you will be choosing to live in places that you feel some kind of connection to. Places that are beautiful and inspiring. Our connection to places can be very powerful, so use this to your advantage. For more on this see our previous article here.
Are there any red flags to look out for that might suggest digital nomadding is not good for me?
If you’re feeling anxious and unsettled most of the time for more than 2 weeks, and your usual coping strategies aren’t helping then I’d advising re-considering whether this lifestyle is for you. If you notice signs of your mental health deteriorating including feelings of low mood that persist, withdrawing from others, difficulties sleeping and difficulties with day-to-day functioning then these are warning signs. I would advise you to do everything you can practically to provide yourself with stability in your living situation and to seek help promptly from a mental health professional.
Digital nomadism offers unparalleled opportunities for freedom, creativity and personal growth. But it is not for everyone, and it comes with many psychological and emotional challenges. If you choose this lifestyle it’s important to be aware of the well-being challenges you are likely to experience, and to take proactive steps to manage these. That energy you spend looking after yourself will help you get the most out of this amazing experience!
Adam, H., Obodaru, O., Lu, J. G., Maddux, W., & Galinsky, A. (2018). How living abroad helps you develop a clearer sense of self. Harvard Business Review.
Eger, R. J., & Maridal, J. H. (2015). A statistical meta-analysis of the wellbeing literature. International journal of wellbeing, 5(2).
Hunt, M. G., Marx, R., Lipson, C., & Young, J. (2018). No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37(10), 751-768.
Miguel, C., Lutz, C., Majetić, F., Perez Vega, R., & Sánchez-Razo, M. (2023). It’s not All Shiny and Glamorous: Loneliness and Fear of Missing Out among Digital Nomads. Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.
Tadmor, C. T., Galinsky, A. D., & Maddux, W. W. (2012). Getting the most out of living abroad: Biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 520–542.