Migration has often been a means for people to improve their well-being—by enabling them to pursue better economic opportunities, escape oppression and violence, and enhance their quality of life, for example. In Chapter 3 of Foresight Africa 2018, viewpoint author Abebe Shimeles shows that in 2017 most migration in Africa occurred within the continent, with less than a quarter of African migrants leaving the continent for other destinations, as seen in Figure 3.5 below.
But does migration necessarily help migrants achieve happier lives? And what about other groups of people affected by migration, such as people who remain in areas of origin and people who are already living in destination areas? What do we know about how migration affects their happiness?
The latest World Happiness Report, launched earlier this week, examines the consequences of migration on the happiness of migrants and other groups of people affected by migration. It ranks and analyzes levels and changes in happiness of all people in 156 countries. The global data on happiness was collected from surveys conducted by Gallup World Poll, based on samples of 1,000 observations per year in each country and averaged for 2015-2017. The report further separates out data on foreign-born residents of 117 countries (which had more than 100 foreign-born respondents between 2005 and 2017) to allow analysis specific to immigrants.
In terms of happiness at the country level, the report finds that large gaps in happiness exist between countries, contributing to the desire for people to migrate internationally. Scandinavian countries continue to top the happiness index, while fragile states score lowest on the index. The average happiness score in the top 10 ranked countries is 7.44, nearly doubling the average score of the bottom 10 ranked countries, which is 3.34. Nearly 80 percent of the difference in average happiness scores between these two groups can be explained by six key variables: logged GDP per capita (which explains 33 percent of the difference), social support (28 percent), healthy life expectancy (19 percent), freedom to make life choices (12 percent), perceptions of corruption (7 percent), and generosity (2 percent). Still, the report notes that happiness can change within societies. The West African country of Togo, interestingly, experienced the biggest gains in happiness between 2008-2010 and 2015-2017, and moved up 17 spots in the global rankings between 2015 and 2017 alone.
Another important finding was that immigrant populations experience very similar levels of happiness as the rest of the population in their host countries. The alignment of immigrants’ happiness with that of their host countries suggests that happiness does depend on the quality of the social and institutional supports found in the society in which one lives, the report argues. In particular, African migrants evaluated their lives more positively after migration, both in cases where they moved within the region or to Western Europe, as seen in Table 3.1.
Furthermore, people residing in their countries of origin, who have a household member abroad, generally have higher levels of life satisfaction and positive affect (a measurement of happiness). However, they also experience more negative affect (a measurement of sadness) than people who do not have a household member abroad, which could be explained by the stresses associated with being separated from a family member.
To conclude, the report suggests that when migrants move to countries with higher happiness scores than their own, they tend to improve their own happiness in line with their new host countries. Similarly, when they move to unhappier countries, their happiness scores diminish to align with happiness of their destination country. Moreover, when immigrants are accepted and integrated into their host societies, the happiness outcomes are best for migrants. Notably, the original residents of host societies also tend to be happier if the country is more accepting of immigrants, other things being equal. Finally, improving socioeconomic conditions and fostering trust in local governance may raise happiness in unhappier countries from which migration is highest, leading to more manageable migration flows and safer conditions for migrants.