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  • Angelica Accurso

Belonging, on the move: Finding a balance as a Digital Nomad



Thanks to digital nomadism, a world of freedom to discover new cultures, places, people unfolded; with the possibility of travelling and working at the same time without one's income depending on a fixed location. Drawing on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this blog explores the resource and cost of this kind of freedom. Freedom is the pursuit of satisfaction of both one’s primary needs (breathing, sleeping, hunger, thirst, reproductive) and also those of a higher order (security, self-fulfilment, esteem and belonging) (Karine Ehn et al., 2022). Belonging is the core of this blog, a higher-order need that is indispensable if someone has freedom in life; and this is one of those needs that most come up as challenges in the life of a digital nomad.


What does belonging mean?

Sense of belonging is defined in different ways by different authors. It is defined as the experience of personal involvement in a system or environment, so that people feel part of that system or environment. (Hagerty et al., 1992); or a subjective feeling of value and respect built on a foundation of shared experience, beliefs or personal characteristics; a feeling of connectedness based on the context or reference group, to which one chooses, wants and feels allowed to belong to (Alyson L. Mahar et al., 2012).


Hence, for the sake of clarity: sense of belonging is a feeling of identification and attachment to a social group that is linked to positive well-being. Developed from a social bond, this belonging is reflected in a set of cultural, historical and social values that help construct individual identity. Identity, indeed, is a construction that helps define the Self. Importantly, identity cannot be separated from a social group of reference, and when confronted, it develops and redefines several times throughout life.


Thus, one's sense of belonging also changes throughout life. Belonging helps us to develop new values and new keys to interpreting reality. It also helps us increase our self-esteem. When one belongs, it is possible to reflect oneself in a social group that shares aligned values and ways of interpreting reality, which in turn has a positive impact on our self-esteem.



How is belonging relevant to the experiences of Digital Nomads?

By overturning Maslow's system of needs, digital nomads seem to prioritise the needs at the top of the hierarchy prompted by the motivation to grow, rather than leveraging primary needs motivated by scarcity. Digital nomads take on work that allows them the freedom to choose where they work, overturning the system of stale security that binds them to a fixed location or job. Thus, the pursuit of self-actualisation is what drives digital nomads the most: indeed, the possibility of getting to know each other by constantly discovering new cultures and different othernesses, or the simple fact of finding oneself in complex situations that activate one's sense of adaptation and problem-solving skills. These are factors that increase self-confidence and, consequently, self-actualisation (Karine Ehn et al., 2022) amongst digital nomads. Although there is much literature emphasising the correlation between a sense of belonging and well-being, job satisfaction, and life satisfaction amongst migrants (Steger, M. F., & Kashdan, T. B., 2009; Winter-Collins et al., 2000; Carla Valle Painter, 2013); much less has been said about belonging for digital nomads. What we do know is that the continuous geographical displacement and a continuous turnover of social groups can lead to a sense of isolation and loss of social belonging.


Despite their modern “liquid” and free flowing lives, digital nomads have not necessarily abandoned old traditional values such as the stability of marriage and family. One study emphasises that the lifestyle of digital nomads is characterised by an openness to 'go with the flow' where 'the only constant is change' but, despite this appreciation for holistic freedom, the digital nomads interviewed in this study reveal how they strive to integrate sources of solidity into their liquid lives, finding social and material anchors ranging from the concrete to the imaginary (Baumann, 2000; Christiane Aufschnaiter et al., 2021).


It seems that the digital nomads who are most satisfied with their lifestyle are those who are most able to be disciplined and establish healthy routines. Healthy routines refer to the ability to define boundaries between work and free time and fill free time with a whole range of social activities allowing to be part of a social group. This helps identification and thus responsibility towards ourselves and others (Dave cook, 2020).



Belonging on the move: challenges for digital nomads

“It's not All Shiny and Glamorous” is the name of the article by Cristina Miguel et al., (2023) studying FOMO amongst digital nomads who spend most of their time working from home, using technology most of the time to keep in touch with the social world and tend to score highly in their overuse or dependency on social media. This study identified a number of challenges facing digital nomads when it comes to experiencing a sense of belonging:

  • Lack of Stability: digital nomads frequently change their environment and may not have a permanent home base. This constant movement can make it challenging to establish deep connections and develop a sense of belonging in a specific community. For example, some interviewees mentioned concrete political factors that limited the possibility of finding a sense of belonging such as traveling on a time-limited visa. One participant spoke of the difficulty of going to a place especially outside the European Union: countries like Mexico, Colombia or Thailand give the possibility to stay for up to 90 days.... so as soon as you get overwhelmed and feel "at home" you need to move again because of the visa; or it's the people you met, "your new friends" who have to leave (Cristina Miguel et al., 2023).

  • Transient Relationships: while digital nomads meet new people in each location they visit, these relationships are often short-lived. It can be difficult to form meaningful connections when you know you'll be leaving soon, leading to a sense of temporary belonging rather than long-term attachment.

  • Cultural barriers: Digital nomads may encounter cultural barriers or difficulties adjusting to different cultural norms while traveling (Manish Verma, 2023).

  • Limited social life and integration: Digital nomads may have a limited social life, especially if they are working long hours remotely, they may not have traditional workplace interactions or the opportunity to connect with colleagues on a personal level (Manish Verma, 2023). Many of the digital nomads interviewed by Cristina Miguel et al., (2023) said they felt a great sense of loneliness, and some participants in the study said they manage that loneliness by making video calls with friends and departures, participating in meetup events, using the coachsurfing app to get hosted by locals, or participating in sightseeing walks, traveling to the country they chose to stay in for that period of time, or frequenting hostels to socialize; however, the vast majority of participants reported using social media to cope with loneliness, with some preferring instagram, some facebook, and some whatsapp to have more direct contact with their friends

  • Lack of Familiarity and emotional support: being away from friends, family, and the comfort of familiar surroundings can lead to feelings of isolation and homesickness. The absence of a support network and the challenge of building new relationships can make it difficult for digital nomads to find a sense of belonging.

  • Missing Out on Community Events: Digital nomads might not be present during significant local events or festivals due to their travel schedule. These events often play a crucial role in fostering a sense of community and belonging, and missing out on them can create a feeling of being disconnected. Many digital nomads reported feeling lost and missing those weekly routines and participation in traditional events/festivities (such as Christmas) shared with their family members/friends, that give meaning to their lives and their sense of belonging (Cristina Miguel et al., 2023).




Wellness tips to address challenges related to belonging

Despite the previous challenges, digital nomads can take steps to enhance their sense of belonging:

  • Collaborate with Other Digital Nomads: connect with fellow digital nomads who may be in the same location as you. Collaborating on projects or sharing experiences can help create a sense of belonging and shared identity among individuals pursuing a similar lifestyle. Creating a community of digital nomads that you can be a part of, indeed, is the greatest protective factor against social isolation and the best tool for achieving a sense of belonging.

  • Embrace the Local Culture and Language: decide what is meaningful for you and make an effort to join local clubs, classes, or interest groups in the places you visit. Engaging in shared hobbies or activities can help you meet like-minded locals and form connections beyond superficial interactions. Learn about the local culture, customs, and language of the places you visit. Taking the time to understand and appreciate the local way of life can help you bridge cultural gaps and facilitate connections with locals.

  • Spend Longer in One Location: instead of constantly moving, consider extending your stay in specific places, not running when things get familiar. Spending more time in a location allows you to develop deeper relationships and integrate into the local community more effectively.

  • Seek Out Like-Minded Communities: engage in online communities, forums, or social media groups where digital nomads connect and share experiences. These virtual spaces can provide support, advice, and opportunities for connection with individuals who understand the nomadic lifestyle.

  • Join or Create a Meet-up Event for Digital Nomads: connect with people also seeking a sense of belonging and when you can't find a group or activity that suits you online, take the initiative and create a meet-up group yourself that will allow you to meet other people with similar interests to yours!

  • Physical exercise in group: besides the fact that exercising is important for health, it makes you feel better due to the release of endorphins that interact with the brain to reduce the perception of stress, participating in a group sport also means interacting with other people which feels good and increases our sense of belonging.

  • Join Coworking and Coliving spaces: it is possible to find a lot of literature on the support offered by working from a coworking space and living in a coliving space as such spaces offer the possibility to put boundaries between one's private and working space, to have a more defined routine, to meet other digital nomads with whom one can share experiences and interests and, what is more, many coworking and coliving spaces also organise events and activities with the aim of helping their customers socialise and create a supportive community.

  • Participate in a retreat for digital nomads: there are several retreats specifically designed for digital nomads that aim not only to build a supportive community but also to work on personal well-being. By giving individual participants tools to cope with this difficult lifestyle, the aim is to improve the resilience of the individual, who becomes increasingly able to cope with stressful situations. Such retreats are based on the search for a connection with nature and the self; thus, taking advantage of the opportunity provided by digital nomadism to work in any place with an Internet connection, participating in a retreat means enjoying nature while socialising with other digital nomads.

  • Create a Sense of Home: Personalize your temporary living spaces with familiar items, photos, or mementos that bring a sense of comfort and familiarity. Establishing a routine and creating a space that feels like home can contribute to a stronger sense of belonging.

  • Know When to Go 'Home': define what home means to you and what it is that makes you feel at home. Work on this concept and understand when it is your time to go 'home', where home does not only mean a physical place! For some people, however, the sense of home is inseparable from their family of origin, so physically coming home can also be crucial. Sometimes one's personal choices are difficult to question, if one has chosen to travel then one must continue to do so, but sometimes knowing how to stop and return home from time to time can be an added value to this adventurous life.


In conclusion, it is important to realise that developing a sense of belonging takes time and a great deal of commitment: it is necessary to find support in the communities encountered and to create meaningful bonds, expanding one's values and increasing one's self-confidence; it will then be possible to overcome some of the difficulties associated with the nomadic lifestyle and cultivate a sense of belonging wherever you go.





References:

Karine Ehn, Ana Jorge and Manuel Marques (2022). Digital Nomads and the Covid-19 Pandemic: Narratives About Relocation in a Time of Lockdowns and Reduced Mobility- https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20563051221084958

Bonnie M.K. Hagerty, Judith Lynch-Sauer, Kathleen L. Patusky, Maria Bouwsema, Peggy Collier (1992). Sense of belonging: A vital mental health concept- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/088394179290028H

Alyson L. Mahar,Virginie Cobigo &Heather Stuart (2013). Conceptualizing belonging- https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09638288.2012.717584

Steger, M. F., & Kashdan, T. B. (2009). Depression and everyday social activity, belonging, and well-being- https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2009-04542-007

Winter-Collins, Alison; McDaniel, Anna M. (2000). Sense of belonging and new graduate job satisfaction-

https://journals.lww.com/jnsdonline/Abstract/2000/05000/SENSE_OF_BELONGING_AND_NEW_GRADUATE_JOB.2.aspx

Carla Valle Painter (2013). Sense of belonging: literature review- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328610471_Sense_of_belonging_literature_review

Christiane Aufschnaiter, Sarah Schwarz, and Andrea Hemetsberger (2021). Anchors on the Move: Digital Nomads’ Solid Footholds in Liquidity- https://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v49/acr_vol49_3000231.pdf

David Cook (2020). The freedom trap: digital nomads and the use of disciplining practices to manage work/leisure boundaries- https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40558-020-00172-4

Cristina Miguel, Christoph Lutz, Filip Majetić, Rodrigo Perez-Vega (2023). It's not All Shiny and Glamorous: Loneliness and Fear of Missing Out among Digital Nomads- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/366840350_It's_not_All_Shiny_and_Glamorous_Loneliness_and_Fear_of_Missing_Out_among_Digital_Nomads

Manish Verma (2023). The Future of Work For Digital Nomads: The Benefits And Risks of Automation- https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Manish-Verma-47/publication/370099953_The_Future_of_Work_For_Digital_Nomads_The_Benefits_And_Risks_of_Automation/links/643edce81b8d044c63321049/The-Future-of-Work-For-Digital-Nomads-The-Benefits-And-Risks-of-Automation.pdf

Lyndon E. Garrett, Gretchen M. Spreitzer, and Peter A. Bacevice (2017). Co-constructing a Sense of Community at Work: The Emergence of Community in Coworking Spaces- https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0170840616685354

Ekaterina Chevtaeva (2021). Coworking and Coliving: The Attraction for Digital Nomad Tourists- https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-65785-7_17


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