Great News: You Don’t Have to Be a Digital Nomad to Find Bliss

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A “digital nomad” is someone who earns money completely online (hence, “digital”) and, as a result, has the freedom to be location-independent (hence, “nomad”).

This lifestyle has become especially popular in recent years. Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat are flooded with accounts of young people who have supposedly created their own business online and have found the freedom to work from their laptop while traveling the world full-time.

I suspect that 50% of these young people are traveling using their parent’s money, another 40% only have enough cash flow to survive for six months, and the other 10% are genuinely earning enough to sustain a nomadic lifestyle.

But are these 10% really living the dream? Is traveling the globe while earning money from your laptop the secret to finding bliss?

For some, maybe. For most, probably not.

The Dark Side of Being a Digital Nomad

I have never personally been a digital nomad, but it is a lifestyle I have considered pursuing. Based on my own research, I have noticed that most digital nomads share an eerily similar story about their experiences.

Most say that traveling to different countries and embracing new cultures on a regular basis is exciting and eye-opening at first. Living in a different place each week brings opportunity for new adventures. Exploring new cities is exhilarating. But after the initial excitement wears off, loneliness creeps in.

These nomads meet plenty of people in their travels, but rarely acquire close friends. After a while, they start to miss their family, having deep conversations with people they love, and feeling a sense of community.

Along with this, most young people who pursue this lifestyle seem to find out quickly just how hard it can be to earn money online. 

For anyone who has ran a blog for a year or longer, you know just how difficult it actually is to be profitable. For this reason, most digital nomads are actually just freelancers who don’t earn a living from their own blog. Instead, they work as consultants, pick up odd writing jobs, do short-term coding gigs, or act as social media managers for companies.

It doesn’t take long to realize that being a freelancer still means you have to rely on someone else for a paycheck. As I recently read in this article, one digital nomad discovered that freelancing wasn’t as glamorous as he had hoped:

“But, like anything, the novelty wore off. Working from home became my new normal, and I was bothered by the fact I still had to rely on someone else for my paycheck. I quickly found that unless you absolutely love what you’re doing or building your own business, it will get stale. For me, it took about a year to discover I hated my new job.

I realized that I was no different than an office wage-slave saving up for a new television or iPhone. Only my vices were drinking and partying.”

This is the “dark side” of being a digital nomad that you don’t see in the exotic Instagram pictures.

Community and Meaningful Work

Belonging to a community and doing meaningful work are both required to live a happy life. 

In The Village Effect, Susan Pinker traveled to Sardinia, the island with the highest rate of centenarians (people who are 100 + years old) in the world, to find out why people were living such long lives.

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It turns out that Sardinians often live in close-knit villages, where families live in close-proximity to each other and grandparents often live in the same house as their grandchildren.

The elderly keep busy each day playing with their grandchildren, baking at home, and frequently taking walks around the village. These people live so long because they are part of a community that helps them feel young.

The importance of social circles has been documented in other books as well. A sense of community and belonging is inherently good for our mental and physical health.

The other factor that tends to correlate with high happiness levels is meaningful work. The people who wake up with a feeling of purpose, who feel that they’re contributing something important to the world, are among the happiest people on earth.

An obvious example is Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger at age 87 and 94, respectively. These guys have never “retired” from working because they love what they do.

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An example of someone I personally know who loves his work is a guy who sits near me at my office. He has been with our company for over 20 years. Every day there is a constant stream of people who stop by his cube to chat, sometimes about work, but mostly about life. The guy is constantly laughing and joking throughout the day.

He truly seems to love the people he works with and his position within the corporation. He seems to have found both his dream job and a social circle all in one place. I bet he’ll be with our company until he retires.

Is Being a Digital Nomad Ideal for Community and Meaningful Work?

I would argue that you can find meaning in your work as a digital nomad. I don’t think you need to be in an office environment or even work with a team to have a truly enjoyable work life. I personally prefer to work alone.

But I think a huge percentage of people pursue the digital nomad lifestyle because they believe it’s the magic ticket to earning money doing what they love. Most don’t realize just how hard it is to run your own business and earn money from your passion. More than likely, you’ll still have to work for a company to earn money online. For some people, this type of work might not be any better than a traditional 9-5 job.

In terms of community, I would argue that a digital nomad lifestyle does not lend itself well to forming deep connections with people and becoming a member of a larger “village.” If you’re constantly on the move, you’re never giving yourself enough time to establish roots and form relationships. I think this is why most people who pursue this lifestyle experience deep loneliness at some point.

Connections > Location

When most of us imagine what it’s like to lead a different lifestyle, it’s easy to imagine the good. It’s easy to picture oneself sitting on a beach, surrounded by white sand, looking out over a clear blue ocean. It’s not so easy to picture oneself sitting in a hotel, with nobody to talk to for days at a time, not knowing the native language and feeling a deep sense of loneliness.

I have this hypothesis that many of us fantasize that certain locations will bring us bliss, while ignoring the fact that connections are far more important. You can live in a place where the weather is miserable 365 days a year, but still be perfectly content if you’re surrounded by people you know and love. It’s much harder to live in a place where the weather is flawless 365 days per year but you have no family or friends to connect with.

I watched a documentary on Netflix recently that took place in North Dakota. It took place in a town where the temperature was freezing cold most of the year and the environment looked like a barren wasteland. Yet, when interviewed, most of the people in the town said something along the lines of  “This is my home. These are my neighbors. This is my community. Why would I ever leave?”

The Importance of Awareness

I used to think that being a digital nomad was the ultimate lifestyle worth pursuing. But the more stories I have read, videos I have watched, and podcasts I have listened to, the more I have heard the same message from countless digital nomads: The grass is not always greener on the other side.

I still may try to be a digital nomad some day, but I at least know ahead of time that it’s not the magic formula for finding bliss. I have realized that the work you do and the people you connect with are far more important than the place you live. You can find bliss anywhere. You don’t have to travel full-time through southeast Asia to find it.

Currently I live close to my parents, my siblings, and my best friends. I enjoy seeing the same people at the gym each day. I like knowing the baristas at the local coffee shops. I enjoy having a little village.

Although one day I may try to travel the globe and earn a living from my laptop, I’m not fooling myself into thinking that lifestyle will be the golden ticket to pure bliss. Happiness is found in what you do and who you connect with, not where you live or where you work from.


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20 Replies to “Great News: You Don’t Have to Be a Digital Nomad to Find Bliss”

  1. Yup! No one lifestyle is the cure for discontent. You can only find that within yourself. The key to becoming a digital nomad is ensuring your business is profitable before you go full nomad. It would be nuts to just quit your 9-to-5 job, move to Russia, and try to start an online business there. I do think digital nomads have communities to find their fulfillment, particularly in expat groups. I used to live overseas and it’s crazy how just sharing a citizenship will bring you close to people.

    1. There’s definitely communities and niches out there that you can join as a digital nomad, which can help you feel like a member of a larger group. I think it can be a more difficult lifestyle than most people make it out to be, though. The travel and freedom seems great, but the potential loneliness and difficulty in finding work are both very real factors to consider too.

  2. I definitely resonate with this one. My husband and I are more “roots” vs. “wings” people. We want to really go deep in our community, setting our roots, forming solid relationships and friendships and giving back to the community we live in. We also want to find ways to improve (or help improve) our community in ways we are passionate about. For us, digital nomadism is not very enticing 🙂

    1. That’s great that you’re aware of the fact that you and your husband are more “roots” oriented rather than “wings.” I think for some people, the only way to find out if they’re a “roots” or “wings” type of person is to experience both lifestyles first-hand and see which one they like better. Some also prefer to be a hybrid – living in one location as a home base and taking extended trips occasionally as well 🙂

    2. Definitely the rooted type ?

      We were winged for a while, and travelled FT for six months. Largely on savings, partly digital work. It was fab but it was a chapter of life, something I would happily do once in a while (I’d love to do another long term stint of travel eventually) but now is about nesting and settling into our own home.

  3. Hi Zach, I see the merits of becoming a digital nomad, especially if you are young and want to travel the world. For most the older you get the more rooted you become, children, family, friends and you want somewhere to hang your hat. Your last sentence says it well “Happiness is found in what you do and who you connect with, not where you live or where you work from.” Great post!

    1. You make a great point -it seems that young people are more drawn to this lifestyle because of the allure of adventure and freedom, while older people tend to lean more towards establishing roots in one community where they can raise a family. I hadn’t previously considered the fact that it could be a good idea to be a digital nomad while you’re young, but eventually transitioning to a more central location community-based lifestyle as you get older. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  4. This lifestyle is intriguing to me, I like to hear the stories of people’s experiences. Far too often these people only focus on the positive without sharing the drawbacks. It’s important to peel back the layers and closely examine the pros and cons. You identified the drawbacks well, the digital nomad life can be a perfect fit for some people and the wrong fit for others.

    I enjoy traveling and seeing new places, but I also love having a home to come back to. I think the loneliness of being away from family and friends so much would hit me hard. My goal is to build up the resources to travel often, maybe even for 1-3 months at a time, but I don’t think being a full-time digital nomad would be the right fit for me.

    1. I’m similar to you, Matt – I enjoy traveling often but I also like having a home to return to once my travels are over. I think we have similar goals – to build up enough savings to support a lifestyle where frequent travel is optional.

  5. Great article (as always). I don’t really dream about being a digital nomad and travelling to hundreds of different countries, but the idea of setting your own schedule sounds so appealing. Out of curiosity – what documentary did you watch? I’d be interested in checking it out!

    1. I’m in agreement – I like the idea of setting my own schedule more than the idea of traveling constantly.

      The documentary is on Netflix and it’s called “Welcome to Leith.” It’s pretty bizarre. It’s about a guy who tries to set up a KKK headquarters in Leith, North Dakota and all of the residents in the town basically try to drive him out. It doesn’t have much of a connection with the “digital nomad” theme in this article other than the fact that the residents in the town loved their community haha.

  6. Yeah, I can totally see the loneliness aspect. When I travel alone, I usually stay more connected through WhatsApp with my family and friends so it kinda feels like I’m not alone. Humans are more deeply motivated by meaning and connection than we predict. I can’t see my self being a full-time digital nomad, maybe extended traveling instead with a home base.

    1. I love using WhatsApp as well when I travel. I think for most people, their “extended” travel experiences are limited to 2-3 weeks, which isn’t the same thing as traveling for months or even years at a time. While it’s fun to travel for a few weeks, I imagine it can become quite ordinary after a while, which could make the whole “digital nomad” glorified lifestyle overrated.

      1. Yeah, hedonic adaptations and all that. I remember someone(a digital nomad or taking a year off) writing about running on the beach one Day 1 vs 3 months in, how the happiness of the act leveled down to baseline level.

  7. Pingback: 3 Ideas to Reignite Your Hustle - FIRE Exit OnlyBest ofdigital nomad, financial independence, fire, quitting, values
  8. Doing what we want to do instead of what we have to do is more worthwhile. Life is too short and if we don’t enjoy it, then it’s all vanity. There are several way to find a living and if we do what we really want to do and make it a living, then our lives will surely be happy.

    Being a digital nomad is some kind of living with no boundaries. Hence you can do want you want wherever you want without someone telling you to do what they want.

  9. Beautiful post! I love the point you’ve made in the end. It’s all up to you. Places and things don’t make someone happy, your view towards things and you attitude to embrace life as it comes does.

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