2010 September 06 Monday
Migration Does Not Bring Happiness

The grass might be greener on the other side of the border. But that does not make people happier.

The grass might not be greener on the other side of the border, a new study from the University of Leicester has found.

Economic migrants travelling to different shores for greater income could be set for disappointment because the pursuit of wealth does not equate with happiness.

Sociologist Dr David Bartram carried out the study: "Economic Migration and Happiness: Comparing Immigrants' and Natives' Happiness Gains from Income." It was published by Social Indicators Research online on 27th August and will be printed next year.

He sought to establish whether those people who were motivated by higher incomes in a wealthy country actually gain greater happiness via migration. He also examined whether these economic migrants might have exaggerated expectations about what they will achieve and experience, such that there is some significant disappointment.

Money can't buy you happiness. This is consistent with a wider body of research literature that shows rising living standards do not increase general levels of happiness. Given the important role that relative status plays in determining happiness I do not find these results surprising. Rising living standards still leave lots of people feeling low status. I see the instinctive desire for higher status as one of the major unsolved problems of Western societies.

Aside: Communism did not begin to solve the status problem. Communist societies created new status hierarchies based on other criteria. But even if communism could somehow have made everyone equal in status that would not have made people feel good as people want higher status. They experience less stress and live longer if they have higher status.

Dr Bartram, of the Department of Sociology, said: "The study of happiness tells us that people generally do not gain greater happiness from earning higher incomes which suggests that migrants might be mistaken in believing that they will be better off if they can move to a wealthy country.

But open borders libertarians want people to be happy as a result of migration. These migrants are letting down the libertarians. Someone tell the migrants they've got to try harder to be happy for the sake of libertarianism.

Rising aspirations cancel out the psychological benefits of having more money.

"The results suggest that economic migrants might well experience disappointment. Migrants do gain happiness from higher incomes, to a greater extent than natives but the relationship is weak even for migrants. In fact, it also works out that migrants are less happy than natives. The probable reason is that they expect to be happier by virtue of earning the greater incomes available in a wealthy country - but they end up wanting even more after they get there: aspirations probably increase at least as much as incomes.

If the offspring of immigrants are not going to make as much on average as the existing native population then those offspring will be less happy than their parents. At least the parents still have the reference point of the poverty they experienced in the old country. But the kids born in the new country will calibrate their relative well being against the native population of the new country. The most relevant group for the United States are Hispanic immigrants and their income and wealth gap with whites is not closing. So their children and grandchildren will compare themselves to more affluent whites around them and will be unhappy as a result.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 September 06 10:09 AM  Economics Trade

James Bowery said at September 6, 2010 11:14 AM:

Rabid animals aren't exactly happy either, but that doesn't mean they will realize the error of their ways and go home.

Dave in Seattle said at September 6, 2010 4:37 PM:

You are correct that relative status is an important component of happiness. The children of immigrants have lower median intelligence than the natives and even their own parents. Thus they have low relative income and status. They are also indoctrinated in leftist schools to resent Whites.

Rohan Swee said at September 7, 2010 9:46 AM:

Imagine that. Man does not live by bread alone.

But this caught my eye:

Dr Bartram said that the research might also serve to allay some media fears and people's concerns about being "overrun" by immigrants: "The fact is, most people around the world do not want to move to a wealthy country like the UK: perhaps they understand that money is not the most important thing, that there would be a real price to pay in leaving one's family and community.

Uh, Dr. Bartram? The UK is already "overrun" by immigrants. That fact that most people don't want to move to wealthy countries doesn't mean that there aren't millions who do, and already have. A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about serious in-migration. And "serious" in the sense of "starts to have seriously corrosive effects on the things that actually do contribute to happiness in human societies".


Fred said at September 7, 2010 12:10 PM:

This discussion of relative status really intrigues me. Are there any good books on the topic I should read?

Snouck said at September 8, 2010 5:02 AM:

There is even a fairly good song about migrants not becoming happier becose they do not meet their expectations:
Fairy tale of New York

Mike said at September 14, 2010 6:40 PM:

It's also interesting that levels of happiness have declined at the same time that easy credit has become available. My theory is that easy credit increases the illusion of affluence, and makes the frugal feel inferior. Thus you have people spending money trying to keep up the jones's who would rather be saving their money and living frugally.

Randall Parker said at September 14, 2010 8:16 PM:


Your theory makes a lot of sense. People would likely be happier if they didn't have access to easy credit. The joy of the purchase is short-lived. Whereas paying the debt takes much longer and comes afterward.

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