A Comparative Analysis Of The Effects Of International Immigration On The Economic Pursuit Of Happiness For Immigrants


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.

Author: Batool Husaini
B.Sc. Economics (Hons.) Symbiosis School Of Economics

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