“A laugh a day keeps the failure away”: How does humor increase career satisfaction of expatriate couples?

About the authors:

Anh Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate of the Chair of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour at the University of Bamberg, Germany. You can contact her at anh.nguyen@uni-bamberg.de.

Maike Andresen  is Full Professor of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour at University of Bamberg, in Germany. You can contact her at Maike.Andresen@uni-bamberg.de.

Going abroad imposes a tremendous challenge on couples’ career pathways. We witness rich literature describing the dissatisfaction, failure, depression, frustration, and hopelessness, which either partner in expatriate couples tends to experience in their careers. The obstacles to achieving their career goals vary from restricted work permit to unfit or underemployed jobs, exceeded household demands, insufficient resources, etc.

Anh Nguyen

However, there is no doubt that you may have seen the other side of the story. If you are part of an expatriate family community, you can see that many couples, despite their adversities, overcome tremendous barriers to continue their aspirations abroad. We were long wondering, what made them different from those whose careers were infelicitous? One day, there was an event, which gave a member of our research team a hint about our answers.

The member was an expatriate who received a private German language class at home. It happened when her son was three months old, so she was a newbie mom. During a lesson, she was bumping milk while reading aloud a text. The scene was very amusing for the teacher, to the point that she could no longer concentrate on her student’s poor pronunciation and started giggling. As the researcher in our team stopped reading, the teacher explained, while still chuckling: “Sorry, I was imagining how this would look if my husband is the one who teaches you instead.” The teacher’s husband was also an expatriate who taught the German language, whom our team member knew, and reached out initially for language lessons. He, unfortunately, had other obligations, so his wife took over. At that moment, we realized that the expatriate couples who were satisfied with their careers abroad seemed to share one thing: laughing. They laugh a lot, either by themselves or together with their partners. Laughing and humor are precious resources that have aided our humankind’s survival throughout history.

While there are many theories and approaches to conceptualizing humor, the relevant concept for us is the humor style (Martin et al., 2003). The teacher in our story is representative of the self-enhancing comic style. Just like her, self-enhancing humorous people find mirth in the absurdities of life, a trait that helps them alter their perspective on adversities while remaining realistic about problems. They tend to be persistent, optimistic, and resilient; and experience comparably less depression, anxiety, and negative emotions. Laughing and positive feelings associated with this trait also enhanced their cognitive functions and personal growth. People with this benevolent humor style are pleasant to be around, which attracts like-minded friends, nurturing their relationships and enriching social support. It is further known that individual humor tends to trigger a circle of subsequent events in their environment, which eventually benefit humorous people and those around them alike.

This observation inspired our study (Nguyen & Andresen, 2023), which was conducted on 109 dual-earner expatriate couples in Europe at two points in time. The results show that humorous partners tended to perceive their careers as satisfying, mainly because their connectedness with the local community was strong. Humor allowed for increased embedding in the community, and the community enmeshment generated instrumental resources such as network and social support for their career progress.

Maike Andresen

Interestingly, a mirthful partner promoted the other’s career satisfaction, either directly for both men and women or through deepening their community enmeshment among the females. In short, humor facilitated the career satisfaction of dual-earner expatriate couples regardless of who possessed this trait.

The findings of our study demonstrate that sometimes, the most productive resources, which expatriate couples can rely on in their career paths, lie within themselves, namely a tendency to adopt a humorous lens – even in the most dreadful scenarios. However, sometimes scholars and practitioners have forgotten the power of this personal strength in managing expatriate careers. Few global mobility and HRM practitioners have incorporated humor into their policy and support system. We recommend organizations consider this trait in their selection process of expatriates and offer humor training for expatriate couples in the host nation.


Martin, R., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(1), 48–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00534-2

Nguyen, A., & Andresen, M. (2023). “A laugh a day keeps the failure away”: The role of self-enhancing humor and host country community embeddedness in career satisfaction of dual-earner expatriate couples. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, 1125136. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1125136

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