Migrants beware: moving for money might not make you happy

Polish passport
If a person chooses to migrate in order to receive a higher salary, but the extra money doesn’t make them happier, it’s not entirely clear why the higher salary is valuable...If economic migration doesn’t make you happier, then what’s the point?
Dr David Bartram
A new study has revealed that migrants who move for money are no happier in their new lives, and some are considerably less happy…

Eastern European migrants who relocate to Western Europe for financial reasons are not necessarily happier in their new lives, according to research conducted by a University of Leicester academic. In fact, some migrants reported being ‘significantly less happy’ in their new homes than they were before they moved.

‘Happiness and ‘economic migration’: A comparison of Eastern European migrants and stayers’ appears in the latest issue of the journal Migration Studies. The results of the investigation could well make would-be economic migrants think twice before moving to a wealthier country.

Leicester-based sociologist Dr David Bartram examined data from more than 42,000 European Social Survey respondents during the course of his study. He compared the happiness of migrants with the happiness of ‘stayers’: individuals who continued to live in the country the migrants left behind.

'No happier after migration'


Dr Bartram found that the majority of respondents were no happier after migration than they had been previously. Moreover, he discovered that Polish emigrants were significantly less happy in relative terms, as levels of happiness in Poland are relatively high in comparison to the rest of Eastern Europe.

In an interview with ScienceOmega.com, Dr Bartram, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leicester’s Department of Sociology, offered his opinion on why migrating for money doesn’t always lead to increased happiness. I began by asking whether or not respondents had expected to be happier prior to migration.

"It’s difficult to answer that question with the data available," answered Dr Bartram. "I don’t really have any information concerning respondents before they migrated. Even if migrants didn’t expect to be happier prior to relocation, it’s still interesting to learn whether or not they became happier. If a person chooses to migrate in order to receive a higher salary, but the extra money doesn’t make them happier, it’s not entirely clear why the higher salary is valuable. Perhaps it’s of value to a ‘stayer’ back in the migrant’s home country – a family member, for example – but it doesn’t appear to benefit the migrant directly. If economic migration doesn’t make you happier, then what’s the point?"

Economic motivations?


The results of the study reveal that migrants do not tend to be any happier once they reach their new countries of residence, but how much do we really understand about their motivations for relocating? Does Dr Bartram know for certain that those who responded to the European Social Survey migrated for economic reasons?

"Not directly," he conceded. "Only insofar as the people who I investigated migrated from Eastern Europe to Western Europe. Perhaps some of these people weren’t especially interested in the higher salaries associated with Western European countries, but the underlying assumption is that a person moving from a country like Poland to a country like the United Kingdom is doing so because of increased earning potential. This certainly won’t be the case for all respondents, but it is generally applicable."

Even so, Dr Bartram cannot say whether a migrant’s motivations have any direct bearing on their subsequent happiness. It is not possible assert, for example, that a person who has relocated for non-monetary reasons is more likely to be happier than an economic migrant. However, Dr Bartram maintains that the simple fact that a person has moved to a richer country makes their happiness worthy of investigation.

"Even if somebody’s motivation is not linked to gaining extra money, the very fact that that person has moved from a poorer to a wealthier country means that they will experience a change in their economic circumstances. A migrant might not care about obtaining a higher salary, but this doesn’t change the fact that they will most probably receive one."

Are migrants happier than 'stayers'?


Dr Bartram’s investigation revealed that respondents’ happiness did not increase following migration. Whilst migrants tended to be happier than ‘stayers’, he found that this extra happiness was already present before migration. Does this mean that migrants are happier people than those they leave behind?

"That’s what the data suggest," answered Dr Bartram. "I don’t have a good understanding of why this is the case; it’s actually quite surprising. Previous researchers have looked into people’s intentions – their reasons for migrating – and they have arrived at different conclusions; migrants traditionally report lower levels of happiness than ‘stayers’. This is a big question that I would like to address in the future. Is it actually the case that happy people are more likely to migrate, and if so, why?"

One of the study’s most interesting revelations was that the happiness of individuals who relocated from Poland tended to deteriorate following migration. Unlike countries such as Turkey and Russia, happiness levels amongst Polish citizens are relatively high. Consequently, individuals who move away from Poland to live in Western European countries are more likely to suffer a decline in their overall happiness. I asked Dr Bartram whether or not he had been surprised to find that this was the case.

"I was surprised until I learned about existing levels of happiness in Poland," he replied. "Many people – me included – seem to be under the impression that happiness in Eastern Europe is really quite low. That’s certainly true of countries such as Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, but it isn’t true of Poland. Poland is already on par with most Western European countries when it comes to happiness. Once you know that, an overall decline in the happiness of emigrants from this country begins to make sense."

Further research


The conclusions of Dr Bartram’s investigation are based exclusively on data pertaining to individuals who migrated from Eastern to Western Europe. My final question, therefore, concerned the study’s wider applicability. Could these results be extrapolated to economic migrants in general?

"My findings might well hold true within a wider context, but further research will be necessary in order to prove or disprove this theory," he explained. "If somebody is moving from a country where average happiness is already high, they might experience an overall dip in happiness after migration. It would be intriguing to test this hypothesis in relation to migration from Mexico to the United States, for example. Happiness levels in Mexico are relatively high. In fact, happiness across Latin America in general is higher than the region’s economic circumstances might imply. As far as I’m aware, there is no such data for Mexican emigrants, but if there were, I would expect to find happiness fluctuations similar to those of Polish migrants.

"I have recently submitted a paper that explores this scenario, but in reverse," concluded Dr Bartram. "What happens to happiness levels when people migrate from wealthier to poorer countries? Perhaps they will end up with less money in an absolute sense, but equally, they might make gains in relative terms. For this reason, I’ve been investigating migrants who’ve moved from Northern to Southern Europe. It should be interesting to show how people fare under these circumstances."


If you're interested in learning more about Dr Bartram's other research interests, check out his university webpage...

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