If you listen to advocates for the digital nomad lifestyle, you will often hear them promising that it is a recipe for a happier and more fulfilled life. But is there evidence that digital nomads are happier than other people?

It is hard to measure happiness, as it is highly subjective and hinges on so many variables that are impossible to control for. However, the digital nomad lifestyle does have a few key elements that tend to lead to happier people with better mental health.

In this article, I will look at the five principal happiness elements of the digital nomad lifestyle and the scientific reasons why they increase fulfillment.

Of course, becoming a digital nomad is not the only way to incorporate these positive elements into your life, but it is one of the options.

But the digital nomad lifestyle is not all sunshine and rainbows. It also comes with a few key challenges that can undermine personal well-being and happiness if they are not appropriately managed. I’ll also discuss these at the end of this article.


5 Happiness Elements of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

1. Independence and Autonomy

Independence and autonomy in handling when and how you deliver your work are not exclusive to the digital nomad lifestyle, but the two go hand in hand. Not only do remote positions in general rely on staff that can manage themselves to a significant extent, but as a digital nomad, there is increased emphasis on personally constructing work structures that work for you.

The theory that self-determination in the workplace is one of the main drivers of satisfaction has been around since the 1980s. The Harvard Business Review suggests that it is a more important motivator for employees than reward (aka salary).

This stems from each person’s innate need to be the “causal agent in their own life”. This means that making decisions for oneself and seeing the outcomes of those decisions provides a greater level of satisfaction, fulfillment, and engagement with work.

While there is much talk of autonomy within the context of the workplace, it is also something that extends to life in general. When people feel like they are making active decisions about how they live their lives, rather than being forced into patterns by circumstances, they tend to feel happier.

While digital nomadism is far from the only way to achieve independence and autonomy, it is one of the intrinsic reasons why digital nomads tend to lead happier and more fulfilling lives.

2. Work-Life Balance

Many modern lives are built around work. We live somewhere that offers a reasonable commute to work, time our mornings around family commitments and getting to the office on time, and schedule life admin and leisure activities on the evenings and weekends when we aren’t required to be in the office. This naturally leads work to become the priority when structuring our lives and we fall into the trap of living to work rather than working to live.

Digital nomads remove themselves from this “trap”. Where you are is not linked to where you work and you can choose where you want to be based on other priorities, such as closeness to family or nature, cost of living, or pursuing other activities that you consider important.

This key change leads to a general change in life structure as you are more likely to fit things in around each other rather than always prioritizing work. You may feel more comfortable starting later a few days a week to catch that yoga class, taking longer lunches to catch up with friends, or leaving early to make school pickup. The time can always be made up elsewhere.

When work is no longer the principal structural building block of your life, it becomes easier to make healthy choices that balance work and “life”, rather than always putting work first.

However, many people who transition from a work-oriented lifestyle into a more flexible lifestyle can find it challenging to draw clear lines between work and non-work times. Rather than seeing them slack off, these individuals are often unable to “switch off” and put themselves on call 24 hours and consider hours not spent working to be wasted.

Breaking this mindset is one of the biggest challenges for new digital nomads.

3. Positive Environment

Returning to the question of choosing our environment, we can often choose to live in more positive environments when we aren’t forced to live near work. Digital nomads aren’t forced to choose tiny inner-city apartments with barely a piece of grass in sight.

It is well established that being close to nature is good for wellbeing. According to the American Psychological Association, spending time in nature helps children’s cognitive development and improves working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control in adults.

Contact with nature has also been shown to increase happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, and positive social interactions, and provide a greater overall sense of meaning and purpose in life. Research also suggests that nature makes us nicer, to other people and the planet.

Digital nomads tend to choose to spend more time closer to nature. They are more likely to live near green spaces or coastal regions, and they are more likely to take advantage of the opportunity to explore nearby national parks and natural treasures when they have time off.

This is down to having more flexibility to choose where they live, and generally more appreciation of what they have access to because they have chosen it, rather than being forced into a certain location by work commitments.


4. New Experiences

One of the best things about travel is exploring new places and meeting new people. This is not the only way to increase the new stimuli that you have in your life, but it is one of the most rewarding and effective. Challenging yourself to learn and try new things can have a similar effect.

Engaging with the new is something else that has been demonstrated to improve mental health and overall well-being. Novel experiences stimulate the brain’s ability to adapt and rewire itself, leading to greater neuroplasticity. It stimulates dopamine production which leads to both enjoyment and motivation. Learning that you can navigate new challenges can also increase self-esteem and confidence.

According to Psychology Today, other benefits include an increased sense of presence and mindfulness, which helps you live in the present rather than dwelling on the past. It can reduce ruminative thinking, which is the habit of dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings. It also reduces stress.

On top of this, new experiences can promote creativity as you bring together different things in unexpected ways to produce entirely new ideas.

While, from the outside, the digital nomad lifestyle can seem like compulsively chasing new experiences and never being satisfied, in reality, it is about challenging yourself for personal growth.

5. Minimalism

Minimalism goes hand in hand with digital nomadism as you need to be able to carry what you need with you. When you are constantly engaging in new experience, your value focus also tends to shift from “things” to experiences. Minimalism, and letting go of the material, have also been shown to come with substantial benefits.

Some of the proven benefits of reducing the material clutter in your life include reduced stress and anxiety, increased productivity and focus, increased satisfaction with where you are in life, and a decreased chance of developing a “keeping up with the Jones” attitude, greater capacity to think, and an overall improved sense of wellbeing.


Challenges of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

While the digital nomad lifestyle comes with a lot of inherent benefits, it also comes with fundamental challenges that need to be managed. If not, they can sabotage your happiness and well-being.

Lack of Community

First among these is loneliness and isolation. Study after study has shown that the biggest challenge for most digital nomads is a sense of loneliness and loss of support network.

While digital nomads tend to stay in touch with friends and family back home, distance, absence during important life events, and increasingly divergent lifestyles that reduce what you have in common can all weaken the connections that digital nomads have with their home communities.

Meanwhile, integrating into new communities as adults, especially when there are language and cultural barriers, can be extremely challenging. It can make it challenging to form the deep relationships and connections that we require as human beings. You can feel like you are a citizen of the world, but not necessarily at home anywhere.

Digital nomads must develop coping strategies for this inevitable challenge. As well as meeting new people where they are and maintaining relationships with friends and family back home, joining online digital nomad communities where you can bond with other people going through the same things can help.


Lost Sense of Security

The other big challenge that digital nomads tend to point to is the stress of constantly being on the move. But this is less about finding affordable flights and completing tedious visa paperwork and more about a lost sense of security.

Digital nomads are constantly inserting themselves into new spaces and communities that are unfamiliar, and they may not feel safe, especially if they are treated as outsiders. Many digital nomads also don’t have a proper plan for what they will do if the worst happens, whether that be an accident, getting sick, losing their job, or a tragedy back home. These issues can feed a low-level underlying stress that stems from a lack of security.

This is something that many digital nomads suggest diminishes with time as they become better at reading communities and creating safe spaces that feel like home wherever they are. But conducting a risk assessment and having “disaster plans” in place for possible crises can also provide an increased sense of security.


Do Digital Nomads Lead Fulfilling Lives?

While the digital nomad lifestyle, like all lifestyles, comes with its challenges, several elements of digital nomadism do seem to be a recipe for a more fulfilling and happy life. And the proof is in the pudding. In a recent survey by Passport-Photo Online, 94% of current digital nomads said that they were happy with their lifestyle and intended to continue for at least the next year.

While many digital nomads do choose to “retire” from the lifestyle and settle down, often somewhere in the world that they have fallen in love with during their travels, they continue to appreciate many of the benefits of the lifestyle. This is because they bring the positive approaches to living and working that they learned as a digital nomad to their new lifestyle.