Melancholic migrants versus the successful second generation? Nuances in migrant happiness across generations and over time

Published 18 August 2021 / By Isabelle Monnickendam

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Why do people migrate internationally? For wealth and higher status? To join their spouse in another country? Perhaps to avoid armed conflict in their locality. But why do people really migrate? Migration ‘drivers’ can be fundamentally boiled down into aspirations for a better - happier - life. Focusing on the UK, I explored themes of immigration and happiness in my masters’ research.

Happiness (or ‘subjective wellbeing’, as psychologists and sociologists call it) is of undoubted and ever-growing relevance in our society. The need to subsist and survive has become less immediate, supplanted by desires to find a sense of fulfilment in life. This trend is reflected in pushes for meaningful work and the promotion of good mental health by the UK government. As well, focusing on happiness in research and policy has the potential to ultimately mitigate individual suffering. Happiness is of intrinsic value.

Given these questions and trends, I looked into the subjective wellbeing of immigrants in the UK. Using longitudinal and cross-sectional regression models, I compared immigrants with British ‘natives’ (defined as individuals born in the UK, as were their parents) and children of immigrants (the so-called second generation). Data came from the UK Household Longitudinal Survey 2009-18, a panel dataset covering the whole UK population with approximately 50,000 individuals surveyed each year. I controlled for a range of individual characteristics such as age, gender and household structure.

On average, interestingly, immigrants do not have statistically different levels of happiness from British ‘natives’ nor children of immigrants. Contrary to commonplace portrayals of immigrant groups as marginalised and poor, it appears that immigrants do not uniformly have worse subjective wellbeing. Their country of birth matters much more than whether they are simply an immigrant or not: most immigrants’ happiness is no different the British population except for those from Europe, India and the Caribbean, who report themselves to be happier than Brits. I suggest this pattern occurs because immigrants of these nationalities find it easier to integrate into British society and the economy, combined with a degree of self-selection whereby relatively happier people tend to immigrate from these countries.

The longitudinal analysis, however, complicates this picture. Whilst on average over time immigrants’ happiness does not differ from that of ‘natives’, their happiness peaks shortly after immigrating. From then on, it decreases with an individual’s years of residence in the UK. This is in line with evidence of unfulfilled aspirations of what life will be like post-migration and persisting stressors from adjusting to life in the UK. So, when comparing immigrants and ‘natives’, immigrants’ happiness is on average not dissimilar, however, the trajectory of their happiness is much more negative over time.

Turning to the second generation, I found that those born to two immigrant parents are significantly happier than both British ‘natives’ and individuals born to one immigrant parent and one British parent. This was unexpected as these three groups are sometimes treated as the same. The second generation is very much under-discussed in existing literature, research and policy. I speculate that the superior happiness of the second generation relates to greater economic security and cohesive bicultural experiences but there’s not yet enough evidence to confirm this.

What can we take away from all of this? First and foremost, research into happiness and migration is less predictable than might initially be assumed. Rather than relying on the differences in happiness and the wellbeing trends that we think exist, concrete evidence should be found to support theory-building and decision-making.

Secondly and more specifically, we need more research on children of immigrants. Interesting nuances clearly exist between the ‘second generation’, ‘natives’ and those born to only one immigrant parent despite a tendency to aggregate these groups.

Finally, my findings echo calls to ‘demigranticise’ research on minority groups and integration. Only some immigrant groups report having different levels of happiness compared to British ‘natives’. Immigrants are not all alike but are as diverse as the UK-born population. In taking away the focus on an individual’s immigrant status, moreover, we can challenge the tendency (particularly in the Global North) to portray immigrants as suffering objects. Here, instead, immigrants and children of immigrants are seen not as necessarily uprooted and therefore innately unhappy but as heterogeneous and, for the most part, happy individuals.


Isabelle Monnickendam is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford MSc Migration Studies programme. She now works for a charity that helps immigrants in the UK find work in the food industry.