Does Migration Increase Happiness? It Depends
“I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.”
- Anonymous Italian immigrant, early 1900s (posted in the Ellis Island Museum)
It is well recognized that most international migrants move abroad to improve their lives and those of their families. However, migrants frequently experience significant difficulties during the journey or at destination, such as homesickness, unsuccessful assimilation, exploitation, and human trafficking. These types of negative experiences suggest that many prospective migrants may have excessive expectations about the futures that await them and that positive outcomes cannot be taken for granted. Publics and policymakers in immigrant-receiving countries also have deep concerns about the consequences of immigration for their societies.
To what extent—and under what conditions—are immigrants and host-country natives better off overall as a result of migration? This is an essential question for prospective migrants and policymakers in making informed decisions about migration, yet it remains largely unanswered despite ample research on the consequences of migration in various specific domains (such as economic gains, social status, and discrimination). Little is known about how these domain outcomes add up because a clear framework is lacking to examine effects at the broadest level of well-being. By using happiness as a proxy for overall well-being, researchers have begun to fill these gaps, focusing on what migrants hope to ultimately gain from the experience and life more generally.
This article summarizes current knowledge from the scientific literature about the effect of migration on the happiness of migrants and the native-born populations of immigrant-receiving countries, with a particular focus on recent insights from a study published in the 2018 World Happiness Report, a project of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The study found that immigrants across the globe are generally happier following migration—reporting more life satisfaction, more positive emotions, and fewer negative emotions—based on Gallup surveys of some 36,000 migrants from more than 150 countries. However, important differences exist between the subjective experiences of migrants moving to and from different regions of the world. And as immigrants adapt to new environments, their aspirations and frames of reference shift, causing their happiness gains to eventually level off.
Happiness can be defined as a person’s disposition to feel good, which includes two dimensions. The affective dimension refers to the frequency of pleasant moods and emotions (e.g., enjoyment) as opposed to unpleasant ones (e.g., sadness). The cognitive dimension measures a person’s overall contentment and satisfaction with life.
Researchers typically measure happiness using surveys that ask people to cognitively assess the quality of their lives and/or the extent to which they experience certain pleasant and unpleasant emotions. This approach captures a person’s own subjective experience of outcomes while implicitly taking into account his or her ideas about the importance of different situations or preferences. Happiness measures can thus summarize how a person experiences the benefits and costs of migration that truly matter to him or her.
Like all measures, happiness has its shortcomings. These mostly pertain to the imperfect cross-cultural and interpersonal comparability of subjective evaluations, sensitivity to survey design (e.g., question ordering) and timing (e.g., mood biases), and socially desirable answering. A vast literature testing these concerns shows that these imperfections tend to be nonsystematic and therefore mostly cancel out in large samples, or that any distortion of findings is limited.
One strength of using happiness to measure migration outcomes is that it encompasses in one metric how people feel in many areas of their lives—going beyond whether they fulfill their concrete motives for moving. Those who migrate to escape economic deprivation, for example, surely are also affected by the social, cultural, and institutional environment in the destination country, and may come to grapple with social exclusion or identity issues.
Why Study Happiness?
A significant body of evidence demonstrates that when making important decisions such as whether to migrate, most people choose the option they think will make them or their families happiest, with concrete motives (economic opportunities, being closer to family, etc.) being instrumental to this aim. The concept of happiness (or subjective well-being, for its focus on the subjective experience of life as a whole) is thus well-positioned to evaluate the broader consequences of migration for those who move voluntarily, other stakeholders in migration and, to a more limited extent, refugees.
Similarly, after reaching safety, refugees and asylum seekers become concerned with more than just staying alive. This is illustrated by the many refugees who enter the European Union in Southern Europe but, despite having largely secured survival, move on to Northern Europe in search of a better life.
There is a growing consensus among scholars that happiness measures can contribute new insights on well-being. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) emphasized in its 2013 World Migration Report that “there is a need for further enquiry into the factors that contribute to subjective well-being.”
Happiness Outcomes of Migrants
What is known about the effects of migration on the happiness of migrants? According to a study by Martijn Hendriks and co-authors, published in the 2018 World Happiness Report, international migrants worldwide evaluate the quality of their lives on average 9 percent higher after migration. This study’s large sample is highly representative of the global migrant population and includes many types of migrants, such as economic migrants, family reunification migrants, highly skilled migrants, and to a more limited extent refugees. The average migrant, according to the study, experiences approximately 5 percent more positive emotion (enjoyment, happiness, and laughter) and 7 percent less negative emotion (worry, sadness, and anger) following migration. These findings highlight that moving to another country is for many people a powerful instrument to improve their lives.
In the absence of global longitudinal data tracking migrants across borders, this study evaluated effects on happiness by comparing the happiness of migrants with that of demographically similar people living in the origin country and expressing a desire to migrate (potential migrants). Thus, migrants benefit from migration if they report higher happiness levels than these matched potential migrants who have not left.
Differences between Migration Flows
The outcome depends, of course, on the migrant’s origin and destination. Those who move to another country in the same region generally evaluate their lives more positively following migration. This holds true for most intraregional migration flows (see Figure 1), with the exceptions being migrants within South Asia and within the region of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, these happiness gains generally fall below the global average of 9 percent. Intraregional movement in Southeast Asia is a notable exception, consisting mostly of migrants heading to Malaysia or Singapore.
Figure 1. Happiness Outcomes of Intraregional Migrants, 2009-16
Notes: Sample sizes range from 455 to 4,184. * Percent changes for migrants within South Asia and the Northern America, Australia, and New Zealand region were not statistically significant at the 5 percent level. For definitions of regions and information on regional migration flows, see the appendix of Martijn Hendriks, Martijn J. Burger, Julie Ray, and Neli Esipova, “Do International Migrants Increase Their Happiness and That of Their Families by Migrating?” in World Happiness Report 2018, eds. John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey D. Sachs (New York: UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2018), available online.
Source: Author’s calculations based on Hendriks, Burger, Ray, and Esipova, "Do International Migrants Increase Their Happiness," available online.
Not surprisingly, of all flows examined, the largest happiness gains occurred among migrants who moved to Western Europe from developing regions, including sub-Saharan Africa (a whopping additional 29 percent), the Middle East and North Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), made up of former Soviet Republics. Many people migrating elsewhere also became considerably happier; for instance, those from South Asia to Southeast Asia (primarily Singapore) were much happier following migration (14 percent). Hence, for many migrants, moving far from home pays off in terms of happiness.
Figure 2. Happiness Outcomes of Migrants Moving to Other Regions, 2009-16
Note: Migration flows with fewer than 300 migrants in the sample are not shown, except for migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean in the region of Northern America, Australia, and New Zealand (N=214). * Percent changes for Latin America and the Caribbean to Northern America, Australia, and New Zealand, and Western Europe to Central and Eastern Europe were not statistically significant at the 5 percent level.
Source: Author’s calculations based on Hendriks, Burger, Ray, and Esipova, "Do International Migrants Increase Their Happiness."
Migrants who move to more developed or livable countries, such as from the Palestinian Territories to Jordan and from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, report particularly large improvements in happiness (see Figure 3). The IOM World Migration Report 2013 provides more direct evidence that the happiness benefits are especially strong for people moving from developing to developed countries.
One notable exception: The average migrant from Latin America and the Caribbean living in the Northern America, Australia, and New Zealand region does not feel significantly happier after migration, statistically speaking. Similarly, the happiness gains for Latin Americans in Western Europe are small. Latin American emigration is an interesting case because the region is known for being exceptionally happy given its economic characteristics. For example, average happiness in Mexico is almost equal to that in the United States. That Latin Americans are so happy may be due to their rich social lives, particularly their strong and supportive relationships with friends, family, and others—a part of life they may partly lose by migrating.
Migrants in several other interregional flows do not experience more happiness, either. Notably, some 750,000 migrants who left Western Europe to live in Central or Eastern Europe generally do not perceive their lives to be better after migration. A study by sociologist David Bartram shows a similar negative effect for northern Europeans in Southern Europe. On a global scale, people moving to less developed countries tend to experience decreased happiness, according to the 2013 World Migration Report.
The results are mixed for people moving between similarly developed countries. On one hand, considerable gains in happiness occur, for instance, among Western Europeans who migrate to the Northern America, Australia, and New Zealand region—and particularly Australia and New Zealand. By contrast, migrants moving between some other similarly developed countries—including within South Asia, within the Northern America, Australia, and New Zealand region (of whom more than 40 percent moved from Canada to the United States), and Russians in two Baltic states—experience either no difference or a decline in their happiness.
Although some migrants who are not happier after migration may have moved for motives other than improving their personal happiness, such as bettering the lives of family members back home, for others migration appears to be a misguided endeavor.
Figure 3. Happiness Outcomes of Country-Specific Migration, 2009-16
Note: Migration flows with fewer than 300 migrants in the sample are not shown. * Percent changes for Albanians in Greece, Russians in Latvia, and migrants from the Ivory Coast in Burkina Faso were not statistically significant at the 5 percent level.
Source: Author’s calculations based on Hendriks, Burger, Ray, and Esipova, "Do International Migrants Increase Their Happiness."
Can Money Buy Happiness?
The above data should not be interpreted to show that moving to a wealthier country is all that matters in happiness. For migrants who have no trouble making ends meet, happiness is only modestly related to individual incomes and the broader economic environment. Other country-level conditions are at least as important for well-being—most notably, the host society’s social environment, particularly the attitudes of the native born toward immigrants. This finding makes the strong ethnic polarization and tensions between immigrants and natives in many countries particularly concerning.
To more formally test whether relative wealth of the destination country is the most important factor in happiness outcomes, the author examined the strength of association between migrant happiness gains (in terms of life evaluations, and at the level of regional migration flows) and the wealth difference between their host and origin countries. The wealth gap is measured by the difference in the gross national income (GNI, at purchasing power parity in current international dollars) of these countries. For comparison, the author calculated how strongly happiness gains are associated with the happiness gap (the difference in average life evaluation scores of countries) and the development gap (the difference in Human Development Index scores of countries) between their host and origin countries.
Using the same procedure as in the World Happiness Report, the average happiness gain of migrants is more strongly correlated with the happiness gap (r=0.80, where 0 is no correlation and 1 is perfect correlation) and the development gap (r=0.76) than with the income gap (r=0.62) between destination and origin countries. This finding implies that moving to a happier or more developed country contributes more to happiness than migrating to a wealthier country. An illustrative example is the finding that migrants who left Latin America and the Caribbean for Western Europe or the Northern America, Australia, and New Zealand region gained relatively little happiness compared to other migrants from similarly wealthy but unhappier regions, as shown in Figure 2.
Happiness also depends strongly on the extent to which a person’s objective reality (i.e., living conditions) meets his or her aspirations and expectations from life. After migrating, individuals begin to adapt to their new surroundings and adjust their goals accordingly. This helps explain two key insights from the migrant happiness literature concerning the shrinking of the happiness gap between migrants and natives (i.e., happiness assimilation).
Once migrants arrive at their destination, their happiness levels tend to converge close to those of the native born. The happiness gap between immigrants and natives in the same country is generally small, according to the World Happiness Report. For countries where immigrants are less happy than the native population, the difference is close to 5.5 percent. For countries where immigrants are happier, the difference is approximately 6 percent.
This gap is perhaps smaller than most people would expect, given that immigrants typically fare worse than natives in terms of socioeconomic conditions (income, work environment, housing, etc.) and social capital (social networks, social participation, etc.), among other disadvantages. However, immigrants have a major advantage compared to natives: They have more positive perceptions about conditions in the host society, for example viewing more optimistically their own incomes or the government. This can be explained by the relatively low expectations immigrants—typically from less-developed countries—bring with them.
Quick but Waning Improvement
Migrants experience most of this convergence—constituting nearly 90 percent of total happiness gains from migration—within the first five years after migration. At this point, the happiness of the newcomers generally levels off.
This is perhaps surprising: Many immigrants perceive moving abroad to be an investment in their own (or their children’s) future. They expect their well-being to improve over time after overcoming initial hurdles, such as learning the host-country language and rebuilding their social lives—processes that can take several years or longer. Although, objectively speaking, the life conditions of most migrants who move to more developed countries improve over time, these people do not view their lives as improving.
Why might this be? For one thing, migrants gradually evaluate their conditions in the host country through an increasingly critical lens. As their stay progresses, newcomers grow accustomed to their typically better conditions, and begin to compare their situation more to that of the generally better-off native-born population and less to the inferior conditions in their origin country or from their past. Due to these increasing expectations and aspirations, their subjective gains—happiness growth—will lag behind their objective gains—improvements in income, employment, health, etc.
Similarly, native-born children of immigrants are generally not happier than their immigrant parents: They have less-favorable perceptions of objectively similar conditions because they have never experienced, and hardly compare themselves to, the typically worse situations in the birth country of their parents.
Happiness Effects of Immigration on the Native Born
Several recent studies also found that immigrants can make a country’s native-born population happier, or at least do not make them less happy. A 2017 study by economist Alpaslan Akay and co-authors found small positive effects of ethnic diversity and migrant inflows on the happiness of the native born in Germany. In addition, William Betz and Nicole B. Simpson showed in a 2013 study that migration inflows in Europe had on average a slightly positive influence on the happiness of people in receiving societies.
However, these findings do not necessarily mean that all types of immigrants will contribute positively to the host country or that all natives will benefit from immigration, in Europe or elsewhere. A 2014 study by Simonetta Longhi demonstrated that negative effects may occur in specific contexts or for more local communities. Moreover, any small positive effects may become negative when receiving sharply rising numbers of immigrants.
Pursuit of Happiness
The literature on migrant happiness is in its infancy, but the current body of evidence suggests that human migration contributes to a happier world, with particularly strong happiness gains for newcomers and potentially positive outcomes for many natives. However, the significant proportion of migrants who do not become happier following migration, and the plateauing of happiness as immigrants acclimate to the host country, indicate that societies are far from reaching the full potential of international migration in improving human well-being.
Increasing the happiness of immigrants can be a fruitful way to enhance the benefits of immigration for the host society—including for the newcomers themselves—since happiness has proven to be a key driver of economic, social, and health advantages, such as greater productivity and more openness toward other cultures. Hence, to the extent that other concerns are balanced, policies that contribute to migrant happiness are likely to create a win-win situation for both immigrants and natives.
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---. Forthcoming. Bringing Happiness into the Study of Migration and Its Consequences: What, Why, and How? Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies.
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Longhi, Simonetta. 2014. Cultural Diversity and Subjective Well-Being. IZA Journal of Migration 3 (1): 13.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 2013. OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being. Paris: OECD Publishing.