Measuring Migrant Happiness: The 2018 World Happiness Report and Implications for Public Policy

Lena Nour, MPP Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Many Americans consider the pursuit of happiness an unalienable right and one of our nation’s founding freedoms. In 2012, the United Nations Sustainable Development Program developed the World Happiness Report (WHR), an annual report examining overall happiness and social well-being in 156 countries around the world. This year’s report focuses on the happiness of foreign-born migrants within countries. In a globalizing world, policymakers can use this new measure to better understand and further investigate well-being in their countries.

Measuring Happiness

The 2018 WHR ranks national happiness based on factors associated with well-being, including income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust, and generosity. For a country to earn a high overall happiness score, it must score relatively well on all six of these key factors. According to the 2018 report, the happiest country in the world is Finland; the U.S. ranked 18th. While the U.S. has a high GDP relative to Finland, its score falls short in four areas: freedom to make life choices, perceptions on government corruption, social support, and healthy life expectancy. Jeffrey Sachs, one of the report’s authors, highlights, “America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.” According to Sachs, the growing U.S. inequality gap, opioid crisis, and political polarization, are among many reasons why Americans view of happiness has declined.

Happiness and Immigration

The U.S. ranks 16th in happiness of foreign-born migrants, meaning that immigrants report slightly higher levels of happiness than native-born Americans. The report’s authors suggest that much of the variance between how native-born and foreign-born Americans perceive happiness could be explained by the footprint effect.  The footprint effect highlights how life evaluations of immigrants “depend to some extent on their former lives in their countries of birth.” However, this is not always the case. Among the countries 117 countries where foreign-born migrants were surveyed, immigrant happiness was lower than that of native-born citizens in 64 countries, higher in 48 countries, and roughly equal in five countries (as seen in Finland). Further research is needed to better understand these differences and similarities and to untangle to what extent immigrant happiness has been, and can be, influenced by public policy.

Migrant Acceptance and Happiness

The WHR can be paired with other assessments of migrant happiness to inform public policies. Migration trends indicate that people tend to move from less happy to happier countries; however, social acceptance once migrants arrive could have an impact on immigrant happiness. In 2016, Gallup developed a Migrant Acceptance Index (MAI) to gauge perception of migrants around the world. Last year, 2017, marked the inaugural year for measuring happiness of migrants in the United Nation’s report as well as the extension of Gallup’s MAI. Given the expansion of globalization, these two indices can support the prioritization of happiness as a policy goal.

The World Happiness Report and Policy Decision-Making

While the report is often cited by countries in the form of bragging rights (UAE claims the title for the second year in a row as the happiest country in the Arab World), it has the potential for much more meaningful use by decision-makers seeking to improve the well-being of their native and immigrant constituents. However, policy-makers should be wary of the report’s limitations. For instance, countries with different demographic compositions and population sizes might not be comparable. This is, perhaps, one of the reason why Finland and other Nordic countries remain in the top ten rankings for overall happiness. The U.S., by contrast, has a population roughly 58 times that of Finland and a more diverse population. A more sophisticated measure of happiness would likely take national diversity into account.

Policymakers should also be aware that without a global definition of happiness, the report is very subjective. Some respondents may define happiness based on having basic needs met, while others may view happiness based on confidence and achievement (esteem needs). This raises validity concerns about how accurately the report measures what it aims to measure.

While growing research on national happiness is continuously emerging, overall social well-being should remain an issue of vital importance for public policy. Measures of happiness among native citizens and migrant populations can serve as an important decision-making tool for policymakers.

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