Navigating the Challenge: Fundamental Human Needs and Relocation

Man and woman packing boxes as they prepare to move. One is carrying a binder with information on language training for employee relocation.

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All humans have needs. Some of these needs, such as food or shelter, affect our very survival, while others directly impact our quality of life and happiness. Psychiatrist and researcher William Glasser’s Choice Theory claims that pursuing five fundamental needs drives nearly all human behavior. When applied to daily life in a new country, this theory offers valuable insights into our feelings, actions, and overall well-being during a major life transition.

The five basic needs, according to Glasser, are:

  • Survival: The need for essentials, such as food, shelter, and security.
  • Love and Belonging: The desire for meaningful connections, love, and a sense of community.
  • Power: The need for autonomy and control over one's life.
  • Freedom: The quest for independence and the ability to make choices.
  • Fun: The importance of enjoyment, creativity, and a sense of accomplishment.

This framework can provide a strategic guide to understanding why relocating to a new country can be so difficult. Uprooting one’s life and moving to a new environment is undoubtedly an exciting adventure, promising new experiences, opportunities, and perspectives. However, adapting to a new environment is often accompanied by many challenges that can significantly impact an individual and/or family’s well-being. Communicating in your new culture’s language is one of the most important steps to reducing the stress of relocating and ensuring basic needs are met.

Survival

The fundamental need for survival is ingrained in our genes, and moving to a new country often involves adjusting to a different climate, healthcare system, and language. Imagine being unable to effortlessly call one’s doctor, find ingredients to cater to a food allergy, or review a lease document for a new apartment in a foreign language. All of these factors can challenge one’s basic survival needs and even dysregulate our bodies. Access to necessities such as food, shelter, and healthcare may not be as familiar in a new country, creating a sense of vulnerability that is psychologically and mentally taxing.

Asking for support and guidance from your Global LT language teacher or support coach, attending relocation experience sessions, and working to develop essential language skills to navigate your new home can help ease this element of adjusting to a new culture.

Belonging

The need to be part of a community and to “belong” is crucial for our emotional well-being. In a new country, you will likely be separated from support systems—family, friends, and the cultural context you grew up in. The absence of these connections can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, making it challenging to establish a sense of belongingness in the new environment. Social isolation and loneliness are costly. According to the US-based health insurance company Cigna, loneliness costs employers approximately $154 billion annually, substantially contributes to worker job withdrawal, and negatively affects organizational effectiveness and costs. Ex-pats' social needs may be met at work, but fostering a culture of inclusivity is important for native speakers and transplants alike.

Communication is essential to building healthy community and social connections; investing in learning a new language is vital for this process.

Power and Freedom

The need for power doesn't necessarily imply control over others but rather a sense of control over your own life. Moving to a new country often involves navigating unfamiliar systems, whether it's legal, educational, or social. The lack of familiarity with these systems can leave one feeling disempowered and anxious about managing your life effectively in the new setting.

Power and freedom are closely linked in the context of relocation, given that the desire for freedom involves autonomy and the ability to make choices that align with personal values. When building a life in a new country, you may be constrained by unfamiliar customs, rules, and societal expectations. This adjustment can create a sense of restriction and limit the freedom to express oneself authentically, adding another layer of difficulty to the adaptation process.

Learning the language and culture of your new home helps build power and autonomy while navigating how to reestablish your work and social life. When able to communicate confidently with others, you can more easily make autonomous choices of engaging in a wide range of settings and activities.

Fun

Engaging in enjoyable and leisurely activities is essential to meeting our basic needs. Having fun can feel nearly unachievable when one is preoccupied with the challenges of adapting to a new environment. Cultural differences, language barriers, and the stress of adjusting to a new lifestyle can diminish opportunities for leisure and enjoyment, impacting overall well-being.

Everyone has fun in different ways, but connecting with people in a new language and confidently exploring new hobbies is an excellent place to start. Reflect on how you have fun and consider consulting with your Global LT instructor on ways to engage in these activities in your new home as well.

Survival, belonging, power, freedom, and fun are essential to a balanced, peaceful, and fulfilled life. The difficulty of moving to a new country is deeply rooted in the psychological impact on one's ability to satisfy these basic needs. Of course, the disruption caused by relocation can create complex challenges, but understanding the “why” behind this struggle and implementing specific strategies to intersect with one’s unmet needs can facilitate a smoother transition to a new country. Putting forth a targeted effort in learning the customs and language of your new culture is absolutely a necessity to begin addressing these needs.

Reflection questions: What do I need right now? What can I do to meet that need?

Written by Annie Neahring, Director of Program Design, Curriculum, and Instruction.

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