“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
The most vitriolic immigration debates tend to be unhappy affairs all around. One side favors looser restrictions on immigrants, typically because of the misery they endure in their home country and in their hardships during migration. The other side argues that they will cause unhappiness among the native-born, via jobs lost, cultural change, or crime.
But what if we were to look through the other end of the telescope and consider immigration through the lens of happiness instead? “Hundreds of thousands of persons have found here the happiness they vainly sought in Europe’s lands,” C. F. Carlsson, a Swedish immigrant to Nebraska in the 1880s, wrote to his relatives in Sweden. “The greater part have come here without means, many even with debts. But with good will and an unshakable will to work they have within a few years gradually attained sustenance, prosperity, indeed quite often wealth.”
There is no way to verify this claim—no happiness surveys existed 140 years ago. Today, however, we have the means to ask whether immigrants to our shores (and others’) are happier than they were in their original country. We can also see the effect their presence has on the happiness of the native-born in their adopted homes. And in asking these questions, we can all derive positive lessons on how to approach our lives, whether we decide to migrate or stay in one place.
In 2018, a team of researchers from Gallup and Erasmus University, in the Netherlands, assessed the happiness of immigrants worldwide, using Gallup World Poll data on 36,000 first-generation immigrants in 150 countries and territories. This is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever conducted. For the most part, it found that immigrating raises well-being: International immigrants assessed themselves, on average, to be 9 percent happier following migration.
The degree to which immigrants benefit seems to vary based on their origin and destination. For example, immigrants who’d traveled from Western to Eastern Europe did not perceive that their life was better, nor did people moving between the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But those who moved from sub-Saharan Africa to Western Europe saw, on average, a 29 percent increase in happiness.
That happiness bump is even found among older immigrants, who are generally at a disadvantage when adjusting to a new culture and language. In 2019, researchers studying more than 7,000 immigrants over age 60 to the United States found that they were measurably happier following migration. They also found that these older migrants were generally happier than native-born elders, and this was especially true for Hispanic immigrants.
One obvious explanation for immigrants’ happiness advantage is that many find more financial opportunities in their adopted home than were available in their original country. (This might explain why people moving from Western to Eastern Europe do not tend to benefit.) According to one 2021 immigration survey, 53 percent of first- and second-generation immigrants to the United States say their (or their parents’) main reason for coming was the potential of economic gain.
Another reason has to do with entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs, regardless of their immigration status, tend to be happier than non-entrepreneurs, even after controlling for income differences. Researchers suspect that this benefit is related to entrepreneurs’ control over their own time and career. Immigrants are disproportionately likely to be entrepreneurs. Even the act of immigration is inherently enterprising, involving risk, faith in the future, and an anticipated reward.
This is precisely why Ronald Reagan extolled the spirit of immigrants in his speech accepting the 1980 Republican nomination for the presidency. “I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries,” he implored the audience, “the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth.” It is no small irony that this pro-immigration speech featured a memorable phrase that has since been co-opted by an anti-immigration agenda: “Make America great again.”
Reagan’s remarks also crucially suggested that immigrants make the rest of society happier. This is a controversial assertion these days, and has been the implicit fodder for many a political battle, but the research is conclusive that societies that are open and welcoming to immigrants experience large happiness gains when they come, while societies with negative attitudes about immigration experience declines in average well-being when immigration rises. For a place like Greece, where 82 percent of the population wanted fewer or no immigrants in 2018, higher immigration will likely depress average happiness. The effect is less clear-cut in the United States, where that number was only 29 percent.
The link between immigration and a country’s overall happiness is even more pronounced when immigrants assimilate moderately to their new home. One study using data from Germany found that when immigrants worked, earned a wage, felt part of their new country’s culture, and spoke and wrote its language, natives’ happiness rose. The relationship between assimilation and happiness is more complicated for immigrants themselves.
The most obvious lesson from all this research is that if you aren’t happy where you are living, you’d likely boost your well-being by moving (if you can) to somewhere else, whether it’s a different country or just a new city. You might worry about moving, wondering if you will inadvertently be going from bad to worse. Studies on immigrants show, however, that the odds are that your situation will improve.
A second lesson is that the link between the entrepreneurial spirit and happiness is not strictly an economic phenomenon. Immigrants live start-up lives: They put social, religious, and linguistic capital at risk; they act out of faith in themselves and their future; they pursue outstanding returns, denominated in money or not. Whether or not you’re an immigrant, anyone can endeavor to live more like this, acting with courage, and hope. To take a noneconomic example: If you are single and unhappily so, think how you might pursue an entrepreneurial path to love. Put your heart at risk, with faith that you can handle even a humiliating rejection.
Third, when you make a major change of any kind, remember that you will benefit from assimilating to a new way of life. Resisting change can make life transitions much harder than they need to be. If you move, for example, you’ll likely be tempted to make your new space as much like your old home as possible so it feels familiar and comfortable. In doing so, however, you subconsciously tell yourself that the old place was better. Instead, purposely migrate your habits, tastes, and affections. If you move from Chicago to New York, learn to love thin crust. If you move from New York to Boston, try rooting for the Red Sox, as contrary to natural law as it may seem. God will probably not strike you dead, and you might even make some new local friends.
Finally, if you are seeing a lot of new people come to your city, company, school, or house of worship, remember that how this situation affects your well-being depends on how you decide to welcome them. If you oppose the newcomers, you are choosing unhappiness. Instead, make a point of being happy to see someone new, and help them adjust to the way things work in their new community. This will make you—and them—better off.
If you have never migrated, trying your best to emulate immigrants may not come instinctively. For one thing, in many countries, immigrants are frequently denigrated for political ends. In addition, humans have a tendency to see immigrants as interlopers, which may have evolutionary roots in tight-knit tribal societies in which outsiders were a natural threat.
Institutions such as organized religion have asked us to fight this tendency as a matter of basic morality. “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger,” the Book of Exodus instructs the ancient Israelites, “for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Many governments and social organizations exhort us in the same way.
We can take this even further: Seeing the bright side of immigration is good for everyone, not just the stranger. Immigrants are a model for how all of us can live without accepting our status quo, how the circumstances of our birth do not necessarily confine us. That is worthy not just of grudging acceptance, but of admiration and gratitude.