The 2018 World Happiness Report devoted considerable attention to wellbeing outcomes for migrants. Its analysis, based on comprehensive Gallup Poll data covering over 100 countries, showed that migrants who moved to “happy” countries (i.e. countries where wellbeing is, on average, high) tended to end up happier than migrants who moved to less happy countries.

The happiest countries in the world tend to be quite affluent but also tend to have strong social support programmes. In 2018, the ten happiest countries according to the Gallup Poll were (in order): Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia. Thus New Zealand, at 8th, is (despite our grumbles) a great place to live.

Often migrants come from poorer, and less happy countries. The process of moving to happy countries (e.g. in Northern Europe, Canada and Australasia) leads to a significant boost in their welfare.

Indeed the top ten ranking countries for average happiness of migrants (i.e. of the foreign born) is almost the same as for overall happiness: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Mexico (Netherlands slips fractionally to 11th). Note that New Zealand rises to 5th in the ranking of happiness of migrants.

An important factor for explaining migrant wellbeing in their new country is the local attitudes of the domestic population towards migrants. The report finds that countries which are highly accepting towards migrants tend to have both greater migrant happiness and greater happiness for the domestically-born population.

This aspect is one in which New Zealand scores particularly highly. According to the Gallup Poll data, Iceland and New Zealand are neck-in-neck at the top of the most accepting countries for migrants. Intriguingly, acceptance of migrants is not strongly related to country incomes: the next five places after New Zealand in the acceptance stakes are Rwanda, Canada, Sierra Leone, Mali and Australia. (People in Eastern European countries are particularly unaccepting of migrants. Of the eleven countries who are, on average, least accepting towards migrants, ten are in Eastern Europe; the other is Israel).

So, on balance, New Zealand is a happy country that is accepting towards migrants. We are also a country in which migrants are virtually as happy, on average, as those born in New Zealand. On a 0-10 scale of self-rated happiness, both migrants to New Zealand and the overall population rate themselves on average at 7.3 (to the nearest decimal point).

Do people move for happiness?
It is no coincidence that we find high rates of migration towards happier countries. In a recently published paper, Moving Towards Happiness, Dennis Wesselbaum (of University of Otago) and I show that migration between countries is determined by both incomes and average happiness of countries.

People tend to leave countries with low levels of average happiness, and migrate to countries that are both rich and happy. This finding is even after taking account of factors such as climate and distance from other countries that differ markedly across countries.

Thus countries such as New Zealand which are moderately rich but are particularly happy (on average) attract migrants. The fact that we are also welcoming towards migrants (at least relative to most other countries) is an added bonus.

Our migrant heritage
With the notable exception of Māori, most New Zealanders are either migrants or have migrant parents or grandparents. Maybe that is why we are so welcoming (relatively speaking) towards migrants.

I am grateful that my parents migrated from South Africa to New Zealand shortly after World War Two to escape the looming spectre of apartheid. They came to live in a country that welcomed them with open arms. Like most migrants before and after them, they contributed to the wellbeing of their fellow citizens through their work, their taxes, and their contributions to many voluntary organisations.

Just as they were welcomed then, we must strive to retain our open attitude towards migrants. They enrich our society, make our towns and cities vibrant, enhance our cultural activities (and greatly improve our sports teams!).

The act of one person and the mean attitudes of a few others must not derail us from our traditional openness and welcoming stance towards migrants from all parts of the globe.

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