What is Existential Migration?

existential migration

One of the best explanations right now as to why Americans or other expats decide to live abroad is the theory of “Existential Migration” (Greg Madison, 2006). Unlike economic migration, simple wanderlust, exile, or variations of forced migration, existential migration (based partly on Heidegger’s alternative understandings of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, and the concept of ‘home as interaction’ rather than ‘home as place’) is seen as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about one’s own existence by moving abroad and becoming a foreigner.

“Rather than migrating in search of employment, career advancement, or overall improved economic conditions, these voluntary migrants are seeking greater possibilities for actualizing, exploring foreign cultures in order to assess their own identity, and ultimately grappling with issues of home and belonging in the world generally” (Existential Migration, Madison, 2006). 


How do you describe an existential migrant? According to Madison, these individuals have very specific values: liberty, independence, experience, mystery; they cherish what is different, unfamiliar and foreign. They usually perceive their homeland as too conventional, boring and homogenous, and seek out new experiences because they feel more alive and believe they discover more about themselves, when faced with unfamiliar surroundings and different cultures. These individuals believe that migration is the answer to their existential needs, because it will lead to growth instead of stagnation, idiosyncrasy instead of conformity, awareness instead of ignorance, authenticity instead of phoniness, and fun instead of boredom. According to Madison, it’s common that these types of individuals make decisions throughout their lives that are consistent with their futures as existential migrants. These decisions – in the areas of education, work and hobbies – contribute to the development of attributes relevant to their destinies as existential migrants, such as an affinity for diversity or the ability to adapt in unfamiliar situations.

During my interviews with Americans living in Buenos Aires, the word “freedom” came up again and again – freedom from the rat race, freedom from society’s expectations, freedom from materialism, freedom from order and structure, even freedom from having a car. They also said that part of their motivation for leaving the U.S. was that they find their home country “boring” and “normal”, and foreign cultures “fascinating” and “exciting”. They appreciate diversity (and always have), and many are self-proclaimed “xenophiles” that “enjoy” learning foreign languages and experiencing different cultures. These Americans see themselves as “adventurous”, always wanting to try something “new” and “different”. Many mentioned they intentionally look for ways to “escape their comfort zone”.

There are some very interesting psychological consequences of existential migration, and in particular the feeling of “homelessness”. Existential migrants perceive the idea of belonging with some ambivalence, and usually reside in more that one culture at a time (physically, emotionally and/or symbolically), almost as a way to resolve the dichotomy between their need to belong and need to maintain distance and independence, never achieving the feeling of being “at home” anywhere. This doesn’t mean that they never find a place to call “home” (many end up returning to their home country, or settling permanently in the foreign country), but it does mean that they won’t feel completely “at home”, whether in their home country or abroad. However, because these types of individuals believe that they must leave their comfort zone and explore the mysteries of the world in order to discover who they are and realize their potential, this sense of homelessness isn’t just a consequence of their migration, but also a condition. Therefore, existential migrants often sacrifice feelings of security and belonging in order to explore these existential needs. Some of the Americans I interviewed left behind stable jobs (even in the middle of a crisis), relationships, homes and more, in order to to pursue these existential needs.

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