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This happiness expert spent years as a digital nomad. Here's why she picked Lisbon to build her ‘happiest life’

"Being happy is the most successful life that we can aim for."

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Why this happiness expert chose to start over in Lisbon

Aliénor Salmon was working her dream job as a happiness researcher in 2016, when she realized she herself wasn't completely happy.

Salmon, then 30, was a program officer for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, working in Bangkok, Thailand, and "looking into how countries are reflecting happiness in policies, because happiness has become a priority."

"I was speaking about it and writing about it and not living it enough," says the Portsmouth, England, native. "I wanted to embody happiness. And for me, that meant having more freedom and to not be behind a screen so much. And to me, dance seemed like the most powerful form of doing that."

After saving up about $26,000, Salmon quit her job in 2016 to pursue her own happiness. Over the next year, she learned 18 different dances in eight countries around the world.

Aliénor Salmon learned to dance Jarabe Tapatío in Mexico during her one-year career break.
Courtesy Aliénor Salmon

After several more years as a digital nomad, Salmon settled down in Lisbon, Portugal, in the fall of 2020 "to build my happiest life," she says.

In Portugal, Salmon says, she can afford to put her happiness first.

Salmon joins legions of digital nomads, expats, and retirees who have relocated to Portugal in the last six years, many seeking a better life. The number of foreign residents in Portugal has nearly doubled since 2015 to more than 662,000 in 2020, according to Portugal's Immigration and Borders Service.

'Success is happiness'

Salmon, who is now 35, says she was a workaholic before she quit her job. "I wanted to constantly achieve," she says. "If I hadn't done all these things in one day, then I was worthless."

She says her one-year dance journey completely reshaped her outlook on what it means to be successful — which ultimately helped lead her to Lisbon.

Salmon dances Cuban Salsa with instructor Marco Nova in Lisbon.
Grow team shoot

"I always thought that happiness was achieving a certain status or salary, or in my case, getting up in the ranks of the U.N. and getting a diplomatic passport," Salmon says. "But actually, success is happiness. Being happy is the most successful life that we can aim for."

Nowadays, Salmon finds happiness in having free time — to explore creative outlets such as dance, or to simply be with her thoughts and enjoy the sunshine. "If I have free time to take a three-hour walk along the river in Lisbon, that means more to me than making a few extra $100 or whatever," Salmon says.

'I don't do full-time jobs. I don't do offices'

Because she prioritizes free time, Salmon refuses to work a full-time job. "I don't do full-time jobs. I don't do offices," she says. After her one-year career break in 2016, she began working with the United Nations again, this time on a freelance basis as an international development consultant.

It's a strategy she advises for others pursuing a digital nomad lifestyle. "Do your current job really well, and become indispensable. And when you leave, offer exactly the same, but on a freelance basis."

Salmon gets work done at a co-working space in Lisbon.
Grow team shoot

She also founded Bailando Journey in 2020, through which she offers happiness coaching for individuals and organizations, as well as speaking engagements on happiness science. Some months Salmon makes nothing, and other months she earns as much as $20,000. On average, she brings in about $4,500/month.  

Because of the uncertainty of the freelance and entrepreneurial lifestyle, Salmon was drawn to Portugal's low cost of living. "I think that this is the sweet spot where I'm able to not work so hard that it causes me stress," she says. "And that I have plenty of free time to do the things that I love while also being able to live very comfortably."

Salmon says she could live even more affordably in other countries. But Lisbon, Portugal, also offers other qualities she's looking for. "It's clean air, clean drinking water, safety, being able to walk along the river," Salmon says. "Within 25 minutes, I can either be in a forest, on a beach, or a winery."

Living on $4,017/month in Lisbon

Salmon pays 1,100 euros (about $1,243) a month for a sunny, spacious, and modern one-bedroom apartment in Lisbon's city center. She says the apartment is pricey by Lisbon standards. "Ideally, I would have somewhere half the price. But I had to prioritize my happiness by getting this apartment," she says.

In U.S. dollars, her other daily living expenses work out to about $1,130 per month. Those include groceries, eating out, transportation, shopping, services, and entertainment. She spends about $200 per month investing in Bailando Journey, including software subscriptions and occasional tech support.

Because her earnings are uncertain as a freelancer, Salmon gives herself a strict allowance of up to about $4,017/month.
Graphic by Euralis Weekes

If she has money left over at the end of a month, Salmon allows herself a "happy fund" of up to about $660. That's when she treats herself to things that give her joy, such as weekend trips, learning courses, flowers, cosmetics, or jewelry.

Salmon sets aside $396 per month for retirement, which she says she is researching how best to invest.

"Saving [for the long term] is very important, but I don't want to compromise my well-being now for it because the present is the only time that is certain," Salmon says.

Salmon authored a book about her sabbatical, called "Finding Rhythm: An International Dance Journey."
Grow team shoot

Lisbon is a 'really healthy place for me'

As she builds her business Bailando Journey, Salmon's long-term goals are to purchase a property in Portugal, invest more in securities such as stocks and cryptocurrency, and increase her retirement savings.

Because her monthly earnings can range drastically, Salmon emphasizes the importance of her emergency fund, which is enough to cover her living expenses for three months. If she has to dip into her emergency savings, she knows she has three months to find more gigs.

Salmon dines at one of her favorite cafes in Lisbon, À Brasileira.
Grow team shoot

Salmon says she also wants to be sensitive to the fact that her monthly budget is much more than the minimum wage in Portugal, which is set to rise to 705 euros per month in 2022. "I'm well-aware that that is not the reality. For many," Salmon says.

While many locals may not live as comfortably as she does, an increasing number of foreigners are catching onto what drew Salmon to Portugal.  

"For me, Lisbon is a place that literally regulates my nervous system," she says. "It's somewhere where I feel very calm, where I'm able to do things in my own time, where people are very gentle. And actually, I think it's a really healthy place for me."

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