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A Comparative Analysis of the Effects of International Immigration on the Economic Pursuit of Happiness for Immigrants

By Batool Husaini


When immigrants move from one continent to another, they expect to increase their standard of living through increased income and access to better facilities and institutions. However, it is debated on how this drastic transition effects the well-being of these immigrants., whether they are happier or less happy post their migration to the destination country. This paper uses a case study analysis to study the effects of immigration flows that lead to a state of increased of happiness and decreased happiness levels. This paper fills the gap in migration research that rarely outlines expected increased well-being as the main objective of immigration. The case study analysis argues that an increased income from migration does not necessarily imply an increase in happiness in migration post happiness. The study finds that social factors play a greater role in determining happiness for immigrants as compared to a greater GDP per capita in the destination country. The study is limited as it lacks longitudinal data that measures economic happiness of immigrants pre-migration and a long period of post-migration. This would be very useful to measure happiness due to migration as it would show how happiness changes over time.


Happiness Economics has been a recently new sub-chapter of research in economic academia, as it takes into account the social standing and the social effect of economic scenarios. This branch of economics combines economics with aspects of psychology and sociology (Liberto, 2019). It studies how economic situations such as employment and income lead to increased or decreased individual well-being or satisfaction levels. Happiness is a goal that each and every rational person desires to achieve at some point in their life. It can be defined as the feeling of being better or worse compared to other individuals in society, a reference group (Bartram, 2013). 

Happiness researchers measure happiness through different indices, however, the dominantly popular index is the United Nation’s Happiness Index. This index is measured by evaluating six weighted factors; GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). The data for this index is collected through the survey results from the Gallup World Poll. The 2019 report finds that Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands are, respectively the top five happiest countries in the world. The report further finds that South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Tanzania and Rwanda are the least happy countries in the world, respectively (UN World Happiness Report, 2019). 

Happiness researchers find that happiness levels can be increased and decreased overtime. Some individuals in society make deliberate economic decisions to increase their economic well-being and in turn expect their happiness level to increase, such a group of individuals are migrants. The UN World Happiness Report (2018) states that there are approximately 224 million migrants in 2015, which shows an increase of 90 million from 1990 (approximately 153 million migrants). It is important to note that this analysis will concentrate on voluntary economic migrants as the studied sample and therefore, involuntary migration and refugees have not been taken into consideration as their motivations are separate. Economic voluntary migrants move to the destination country in order to attain a potential higher standard of living for themselves and their families in the origin country. Refugees, however, migrate to other countries out of the need for survival rather than for potential economic gain (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). 

The 21st century is truly a globalised economy as migrants are spread all over the world, with 15% of Western Europe’s population being foreign-born and with Canada and Australia holding approximately 30% of their population as immigrants (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). Immigrants largely migrate to other countries in hope of increasing their standard of living and so expectantly, increasing their happiness level (Bartram, 2013). There are several reasons for this expectation of increased happiness status such as increased absolute income and a higher standard of living through greater social and government services (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). The weight of income leading to increased happiness levels has been debated by researchers through several research papers. There are two prevalent views amongst happiness and migrant researchers; that migration leads to increased happiness status, and that migration actually leads to a decreased happiness status compared to locals and stayers. 

The purpose of this study is to analyse whether migration will be rewarded with relatively higher or lower levels of happiness compared to either locals in the destination country or stayers in the origin country. The study will give a wholesome view through multiple case studies to determine whether migration does, in fact, benefit the migrant in terms of happiness level. This research aims to analyse both sides of the scenario of increased and decreased happiness status post migration, in hopes to find whether certain commonalities can be identified to help determine whether migration would lead to an increased happiness level or not. 

The research question being explored in this research is whether migrants are happier after they migrate to their destination country, or whether the migration, in fact, leaves them in a lower state of happiness compared to locals and the stayers left behind. This research will be designed with a case study approach where two main cases will be argued with several cases supporting each of the two cases. The two cases are; migration leads to an increase economic happiness and the second case is that migration, in fact, leads to a decrease economic happiness compared to locals and stayers. 

The comparative study being conducted is significant as it will portray a wholesome view on the topic of whether migration leads to migrants being happier in the destination country. The results of this research can be used to formulate public policy in order to create a hospitable environment for immigrants, in order for them to reap the benefits of their costly economic decision to migrate. Governments can ensure that social and institutional services are provided to ensure that migrants adjust well to the new society of destination and that locals can become accustomed and friendly with migrants in hopes to allow migrants a higher happiness level after migration. This is study is also significant for the governments of the origin country in hopes that potential migrants can be educated on the potential costs and benefits of migration through appropriate studies and wholesome information. 


Migrants are a hot topic in the current economic scenario as the 2016 US presidential election mainly circulated around the subject of immigration. Immigrants are a special group of individuals that migrate to another country for many reasons such as potential increase in income to better their own lives or to better their family’s life (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). In order to understand whether migration leads to happiness, the relationship between income and happiness should be made clear. Many current researches have debunked the theory that an increased income leads to an increased happiness status, while some claim that there may be some connection between the two variables.

The common consensus between researchers and economists is that an increase in income does not lead to an increase in income directly, as long as the individual is above a certain level of income on which they can survive and consume (Diener, 2009). This is further supported as the relationship between GDP and happiness is seen to be positive, however, at a diminishing rate, when comparing happiness levels in richer and poorer countries in a cross-sectional study (Easterlin, 2009). This implies that GDP increase as a stronger effect on happiness in a poor country with less GDP compared to a richer country (Easterlin et al, 2009). This is known as the ‘Easterlin Paradox’ which means that above a certain level of income, it no longer increases the happiness of individuals. These studies then beg the question to what actually increases happiness? A study concluded that increased health expectancy within the population leads to increased happiness compared to higher levels of GDP (Settle, 2014). This study also further states that increased individual freedom leads to an increased level of happiness. This shows that there are several factors that determine happiness other than income. The UN Happiness report takes into account 5 factor apart from income when formulating the happiness index; social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption. 

However, some researchers believe that immigrants are a special case when it comes to the relationship between income and happiness. Bartram (2011) believes that immigrants show a greater sensitivity between income and happiness, which is small but an effect, nonetheless. He further states that immigrants that originated from poorer countries tend to have a stronger relationship between income and happiness. One study points out that GNP is not a suitable association with income as in the case of the United States, as an increase in GNP (Gross National Product) is largely credited to the rich section of society. Therefore, happiness is bound to fall flat and become unresponsive to an increase in income (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2008). This implies that further research must be done to test the relationship between income and happiness with another variable that measures income in an equitable manner (as compared to GNP). The literature is, however, more abundantly points out that an increased income or GDP does not directly and solely lead to an increased happiness status. 

If there is a special connection for migrants, then do they experience a greater level of happiness after moving to their destination country? Many researchers believe that migration does lead to increased happiness amongst immigrants. The UN World Happiness Report 2018 measures happiness with a particular interest in migration. The report finds three main facts; immigrants are as happy as locals in the destination country, however it is noted that immigrants in the happiest ranked countries are significantly less happy than locals. The second fact is immigrant happiness depends on the happiness of local-born and country of origin (the footprint effect). The third fact is that immigrant happiness depends on how local-born are able to integrate and accept the immigrants. The report finds that countries that score higher on the ‘Migration Acceptance Index’ allow for a higher happiness level for both immigrants and locals. The report shows that Iceland scored the highest with 8.26 on the Migration Acceptance Index and is the fourth happiest country in the world. This correlation holds true for other countries such as Canada and New Zealand which rank in the top ten in the happiness index. The report further shows that in most accepting countries, migrant happiness (newcomer and long term) tend to be higher than local-born happiness (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). 

On the other hand, migration can lead to a state of decreased happiness for several reasons. Migrants may plan to move to a destination country that they have not seen and therefore can be made on incomplete and inaccurate information (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). Some researchers believe that happiness is a relative concept, which is derived from comparing oneself to another group, their reference group (Bartram, 2013). Bartram states migration may, in fact, lead to a lower level of happiness for several reasons. The study analyses that migrants may find it difficult to maintain the standard of living and the societal position they had in their origin country in their destination country. This implies that a middle-class immigrant may find it difficult to find a job in the middle-class market in the destination country for several reasons such as a language barrier, unrecognised qualifications and skills, discrimination and etc. Migrants no longer compare themselves to the stayers in their origin country and now compare themselves to the locals of the destination country, therefore their reference group changes. This change in reference group would mean that migrants are less better off compared to locals and so may feed into frustration and lead to them reporting lower happiness levels (Bartram, 2013). Other studies support that the reference group for migrants change to the local-born in the destination country after migration. This change takes place a couple years post migration as migrants report happiness gains within the first five years of migration (while the reference group is the stayers in the origin country) and those gains fall and so happiness falls flat after the reference group changes (Ray, 2018). This is supported by the UN Happiness Report 2018 as it states that newcomers showed a greater level of positive affect compared to long term migrants. 

First generation migrants are not the only group of individuals affected through migration as their children, second generation migrants, are born in the destination country, and can benefit from increased happiness levels or remain alienated and reduce their happiness levels. One study observes that first generation migrants faced lower levels of happiness as compared to local-born in the destination country. While second generation migrants were observed to have a lower level of dissatisfaction as compared to first generation migrants (Arpino B. et al, 2018). However, Arpino does note that the dissatisfaction (lower happiness levels) was still significant in second generation migrants. These results give evidence to the argument that an increase in social embeddedness and societal integration does leads to a relatively greater level of happiness. Some studies analyse that second-generation migrants are not anymore happier than first generation migrants. One study states that second generation migrants, who had two immigrant parents were, still portrayed as lower level of life satisfaction (happiness levels) as compared to the equivalent local-born generation, who had two locally born parents (Safi, 2010). 

When immigrants move to their destination country, the group of individuals usually ignored by researchers are the stayers in the origin country. Largely, researchers agree that stayers are less happy compared to the migrants that have immigrated. Some studies show that stayers that have a close migrant relative tend to have a higher happiness index score compared to stayers with no migrant relative (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). A study supports the claim migration satisfaction was higher than stayer satisfaction in Turkey (Baykara et al, 2016). Thus, study claims that increased income for migrants is not the main reason for the happiness gap. It analyses that migrants have a greater level of social embeddedness in their destination country and therefore, increase their happiness through societal integration. The study further states that happiness increased largely due to increased social resources for migrants as compared to stayers. This may be because of the increased remittances that migrants send back to their family in the origin country. However, this cannot be generalised the UN report studied the case of Latin American stayers scored low happiness scores when a close relative was a migrant. Polish immigrants to Western Europe also were studied and found to have lower level of satisfaction as compared to stayers in Poland (Bartram, 2013). This could be because happiness in Poland is reported to be on an average level comparable to happiness levels in Western Europe. This relates to UN World Happiness Report 2018 that states that migrant happiness is determined by the happiness level of the origin country and so moving from a happy country to another happy country can reduce happiness levels, depending on the reference group of the migrants. Bartram also states that wealthier countries tend to be happier countries, however this does not mean that migrants that move their will increase their happiness levels by moving there. 

The literature reviewed is quite valuable in painting the background of the academic debate on whether migration leads to economic happiness or not. The gaps identified are that a wholesome debate on whether migration does, in fact, lead to a higher level of happiness is lacking. Another gap is that there are very few research papers that identify the happiness level of migrants as compared to local born individuals in the destination country and compared to stayers in the origin country in one condensed paper. This research paper hopes to fill in the gap that has been identified above.


This paper will analyse the subject of whether migration leads to economic happiness with the help of case studies. The analysis will specifically consist of a multiple case study analysis method, where two main cases will be studied with the help of several scenarios and cases to support the two cases. The two cases being explored are whether migration leads to increased economic happiness or a decreased state of economic happiness. The research will consist of qualitative data which will be derived from several sources of information such as:

  • Economic Reports: UN World Happiness Reports

  • Research Papers and Reports

  • News Articles 

  • Economic Journals 

This research hopes to establish a thread between the two cases of whether migration does, in fact, increase migration or decrease it. Each case will consist of several scenarios that portray an increase or decrease in economic happiness post migration. Each case will analyse the relative happiness of migrants compared to the locals of the destination or host country and the stayers in the origin country. The two cases will assess the situations for commonalities that are many or many not lead migrants to enjoy a greater happiness level post their migration. 

However, the study will be limited for a few reasons. The secondary data taken into consideration can be limited as direct measures of happiness may not be possible in every aspect. Happiness is to a degree a subjective measure and so differs from person to person. International migration data can also be limited as there are only a few longitudinal studies that have analysed migrant economic happiness over a period of time. The UN World Happiness Report (2018) also states a limitation of migrant happiness that it is very difficult to measure happiness prior to migration. Also, the case study analysis done in this paper may not be applicable to every migration flow as each flow is different and does not mean that migration will result in an increased or decreased happiness state. 


The two cases being studied are that of the situations that migration leads to relatively increased economic happiness and situations that leads to decreased economic happiness. The data for both sides of the argument have been taken from economic reports and several research papers. 

The most expected outcome of migration would be that migrants are happier post their migration to the destination country. The literature, however, does not fully accept that expectation of increased happiness as several factors come into play when migration is involved. There are a few cases that point out that migration in fact allows migrants to achieve their expected happiness level post migration. Economic research as debunked the theory that an increased income leads to an increased level of happiness. Bartram (2011) however, finds that migrants have a greater sensitivity to the relationship between income and happiness. Bartram argues that there needs to be some truth the expectation that migrants due expect to be happier most their migration, may it be for economic reasons. Migrants may prioritise economic gain, as it may be their motivation for migration, therefore, may report higher levels of happiness post migration. However, this happiness may be temporary as income has a relatively smaller weightage when discussing happiness levels as compared to social factors. This can be proved that UN World Happiness Report (2018) measures happiness with six factors; five of them being social factors and one factor being monetary (GDP per capita). 

The UN World Happiness Report (2018) finds when immigrants were asked to survey their happiness levels in the destination country, they scored 0.47 points higher than the stayers back in the origin country. An example of this would be UK migrants that migrated to other Anglo-Saxon countries. The lack of the fall of happiness in this case can be due to the lack of cultural disruption due to migration, as Anglo-Saxon countries speak a similar language and hold similar values in terms of families, work ethic and etc. The UN Report (2018) further finds that countries that are more accepting of immigrants tend to be happier countries overall. A case that supports this claim is that Iceland scores 8.26 (the highest scoring country) on UN ‘Migration Acceptance Index’, and it holds the rank of the 4th happiest country. This would mean that countries that are more willing to socially integrate with the migrants are likely to be happier countries. This can also be seen as both Canada and New Zealand are both top scoring countries in the UN Migration Acceptance Index and are ranked in the top ten happiest countries in the world. It can then be implied that migrants that migrate to a country that is more welcoming to immigrants, may in fact lead them to have an increased level of happiness as compared to less accepting countries. It can be proved further as Afghanistan scores poorly on the index and is subsequently ranked as one of least-happiest countries out of the 156 countries surveyed (UN World Happiness Report, 2018). Therefore, this case portrays the importance of social acceptance and integration in order to achieve a higher happiness score for migrants. Arpino (2018) studied the happiness of second-generation migrants compared to the happiness of their immigrants parents. The study found that second-generation migrants reported lower levels of dissatisfaction compared to their migrants parents. This shows that immigrants that are no longer alienated from local born are more likely to be happier than migrants that do not integrate with the destination society. Hence, social integration of migrants and local-born can lead to increased happiness levels as compared to happiness levels due to an increase in income for the migrant.

The flipside of the argument is that migration in fact leads to a lower state of economic happiness. There are several cases that support the above statement such as Latin American countries. The UN World Happiness Report (2018) argues that Latin Americans are ranked as part of the happiest countries in the world as Ecuador is ranked as the 32nd happiest country and Venezuela as the 33rd happiest country. This is an unusual ranking as Latin American countries have relatively lower levels of GDP compared to other countries ranked in the same happiness band. This comes to show that GDP (or income levels) may have very little impact on happiness levels of individuals. The UN Report (2018) also finds that Latin American migrants tends to be less happy as compared to stayers in the origin country. This can be due to the unique family dynamic of Latin Americans as they prioritise their families and their culture over economic gain. The case is further unique as stayers are also unhappy when a close relative is an immigrant living abroad. This implies that stayers are unhappy even though they have a higher standard of living through remittances that are sent back from the migrant relatives. This gives evidence to the argument that income does not imply increased happiness levels. Another case supports this, such as Polish immigrants moving to Western Europe (Bartram, 2013). Polish migrants were unhappier than stayers back in Poland. The case could imply that moving from one developed country to another may not increase happiness levels in migrants. It could be analysed to show that migration flows underdeveloped countries to developed countries have a greater chance of achieving higher levels of happiness. However, Bartram (2013) does argue that wealthier countries may be wealthier but moving there does not mean that happiness will increase as a result, as is the case for the Polish migrants.

The UN World Happiness Report (2018) analyses that there are two factors that determine whether migrants will be happier post migration: 

  1. How happy are the local born of the destination country?

  2. How happy is the origin country of the migrants? 

The reasons for the above factors are that migrants are a special case when calculating their happiness. The UN Report (2018) find three main findings when calculating migrants happiness. The first finding is that immigrants are about as happy as local born individuals. It further finds that immigrants in the happiest countries tend to be significantly less happy than locals. A reason for this could be that due to the skills gap, migrants are less better off as compared to local-born. Therefore, migrants would have a lower purchasing power as compared to local-born as so may report lower levels of happiness. This finding can be proved with Bartram’s (2013) analysis of a change of migrant reference groups. The second finding is that happiness of migrants largely depends on the happiness levels of the origin and destination country. The UN Report (2018) finds that immigrants increase their happiness levels post migration when a three-quarter difference in happiness results is present between the origin and destination country. This implies that if migrants move from a less happy country to a happier country, then they are less likely to gain in happiness levels. The third finding is that migrants are happier in countries that are more accepting of migrants. This can be seen in the case of Iceland on the UN (2018) Migration Acceptance Index. 

As Liberto (2019) states happiness is a relative concept and therefore, changes when compared to other people, their reference group. Migrants are a special case as their reference group consists of a mixed set consisting of stayers in the origin country and local-born in the destination country. The UN Report (2018) states that new-comer migrants are happier than long term migrants. A reason for this finding could be that migrants change their reference groups over the duration of their migration process. When migrants first move from the origin country to the destination country, the reference group for migrants are their friends and family in the origin country (stayers). This may lead to migrants reporting greater happiness levels as they would be better off than stayers in standard of living and access to social services and institutions such as healthcare, education, etc. However, after the migrants adjusts in the destination country, then the reference group would consist of local-born which can be identified as their competitors for resources. When migrants move to the destination country, they typically do not enjoy the same societal status they did in their origin country. This can be due to a language or skills gap between migrants and local-born. Therefore, this can result in migrants earning less than local-born. This would mean that migrants are less better off compared to local born, their reference group, and so happiness may fall as their relative standard of living is lower. 

The research conducted in this paper points out the case for migration leading to lower level of happiness for migrants is stronger than the case that states that migration increases happiness levels in migrants. If this paper reflects the migration scenario then why do people migrate if they are not going be rewarded with an increased level of happiness? 


This paper studies the effect of international migration on the economic happiness of the migrants. The method followed is that of a case study analysis that covers two arguments: migration leads to an increase in economic happiness and that migration actually leads to a decrease in economic happiness levels in migrants. 

Migrants tend to be unhappier post migration for many reasons. One such reason would be that income does not necessarily lead to an increase in happiness. Any increase in income in the beginning stages of migration would be levelled out by major costs taken to migrate to the destination country. Another reason would be that since happiness is a relative concept, it is derived by comparisons to other groups, reference group. This would mean immigrants less happy post migration as their reference group post migration are local born in the destination country. Immigrants are more likely to be less better off as compared to their reference group and so may derive feeling of frustration. Thus, experience and report lower levels of happiness post migration. 

The paper, however, does analyse that in order for migrants to reach an increased level of happiness then the destination country should be welcoming and accepting to migrants. The social integration of migrants and locals would allow for a smooth running and efficient economy and society. One study finds that when immigrants show an increase in happiness levels then local-born population also report an increase in happiness levels (Betz & Simpson, 2013). 

It is clear in the analysis that countries moving from a developing country to a developed country are more likely to benefit from an increase in happiness post migration. Migrants would have access to better facilities and services in a developed country such as healthcare, education, government services and etc. This would allow migrant’s standard and quality of living to increase, therefore, resulting in an increase in happiness levels post migration. 

Overall, this paper aims to highlight the costs of migration and that migrants should have prefect information on the journey they are set to embark on. They should be made aware by the origin country, that several costs are associated with migration and a bountiful reward is not always waiting for them across the ocean. This paper can help highlight those costs and encourage potential migrants to do a detailed cost-benefit analysis that could result in a more efficient decision. 


The question of whether migration leads to increased economic happiness is a very important research question as it begs many other questions such as: 

  • Do migrants prioritise relative economic gain over happiness? 

  • If migrants tend to be unhappy post-migration, then why move? 

  • If some migrants from underdeveloped countries tend to be happier post-migration, then why do not more people migrate? 

In order to accurately answer these questions and to give justice and in order to check past research, a detailed and well represented longitudinal study must be conducted to measure the economic happiness of migrants post and pre-migration. This would allow researchers to identify if the claim that migrants are unhappy post-migration is because they have not yet reaped the benefits of migrating to the destination country. Happiness changes over time and so should be recorded and studied in order to definitely answer the research question of whether migrants are happier post migration or not. 

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