International Migration Decisions and Happiness

The Migration Happiness Atlas as a Community Development Initiative

Authored by: Martijn Hendriks , Kai Ludwigs , David Bartram

The Routledge Handbook of Community Development

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  October  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138940765
eBook ISBN: 9781315674100
Adobe ISBN:




International migrants move in search of a better life. The immigrant community is a prominent group that needs support in reaching their happiness goal because a considerable proportion of immigrants do not become happier through migration. These disappointing migration outcomes often result from immigrants’ inaccurate expectations about life in the host country. The immigrant community in the destination country is well placed to provide accurate information on the happiness outcomes of migration. We developed and launched a tool, called the Migration Happiness Atlas, in which immigrants can build on each other’s experience through bottom-up community participation. This tool provides important input for evidence-based choices, more accurate expectations and the development of problem-solving resources among potential and existing immigrants. Ultimately, the collaboration between researchers and immigrant communities offers a great opportunity to stimulate greater happiness in these immigrant communities.

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International Migration Decisions and Happiness

The main purpose of community development is to improve community well-being. An adequate well-being measure is needed to examine whether our efforts in developing more thriving communities are fruitful. This requires a measure that captures people’s notion of what constitutes a good life. Better objective well-being conditions, such as income and education, are mostly instrumental for a more pleasant and satisfactory life (Veenhoven 2000). This fits in with the notion that, eventually, everyone wants to be happy. Therefore, the emerging science of happiness and its subjective measures of well-being have been embraced by community well-being and development scholars (Kee et al. 2015).

The immigrant community is a prominent group that needs support in reaching their well-being goal because recent studies show that a considerable proportion of immigrants do not become happier through migration (Hendriks 2015). This is particularly true for migrants moving to similarly or less developed countries (Bartram 2015). Although the majority of migrants moving to a more developed country do become happier (Nikolova and Graham 2015), there seems to be a significant group of immigrants who do not feel happier upon their move to the more developed host country (Stillman et al. 2015). A key reason for these disappointing outcomes is that many immigrants have false beliefs regarding whether migration can be beneficial to them and in which destination they can expect to reach the greatest happiness (Hendriks and Bartram 2016). Most notably, immigrants tend to underestimate (the impact of) the severe social capital costs that come with migration, such as leaving behind friends and family and the loss of community.

A well-developed immigrant community is key to the happiness of its members. A prominent example is that the sense of community that immigrants feel from assimilating into an immigrant community can compensate to some extent for leaving behind their friends, family and community in their home country (Hombrados-Mendieta et al. 2013). Several organizations specifically exist to connect individuals within immigrant communities, such as the global organization InterNations, which focuses on connecting expats. Less attention has been given to the role of immigrant communities in transferring knowledge to people considering migration, known as potential immigrants, on how to make the most out of migration. The process of transferring knowledge goes relatively automatically for immigrants who are already assimilated into an immigrant community, because migration experiences are a primary conversation topic among immigrants. In contrast, people considering migration lack accurate knowledge about what they can expect from living in their considered destination countries. Immigrant communities are often not sufficiently organized to accurately inform potential immigrants on how to make the most out of migration, and organizations that are specialized in helping potential migrants to make more accurate choices are scarce. This is unfortunate given that positive migration outcomes do not only require that immigrants have a good understanding of how to optimize their outcomes after arriving in the host country, but also require that migrants only move when they can potentially benefit from migration in the first place.

In this chapter, we discuss how greater happiness in immigrant communities can be stimulated through bottom-up community participation by transferring knowledge from existing immigrants to potential immigrants on (how to maximize) the happiness outcomes of international migration. This form of community participation can be beneficial across diverse immigrant groups including refugees, expats and migrants for family reunion. Although this chapter concentrates on migration decisions, we want to emphasize that the benefits of immigrant communities acting collectively go well beyond the impact of transferring and expanding knowledge. For instance, the process of helping potential immigrants can stimulate a greater sense of community in the immigrant community and can benefit the assimilation of potential immigrants into the community.

The remainder of this paper is organised as follows. In the next section, we introduce the emerging science of happiness. The following section then discusses the issues migrants face in making accurate migration decisions, after which the importance of immigrant communities acting collectively is outlined. In our projects, we have been amazed by the willingness of immigrants to share their daily life experiences to help their (for them often unknown) successors in achieving better happiness outcomes from migration. The desire of immigrants to learn from each other in developing a happier life has motivated us to develop and launch a tool in which immigrants can build on each other’s experience. This tool, called the Migration Happiness Atlas, is presented in the penultimate section. The atlas provides a platform for immigrants to spread factual knowledge about happiness outcomes of migration. The common issues revealed by the Migration Happiness Atlas provide important input for evidence-based choices, more accurate expectations, and the development of problem-solving resources. Finally, we present our conclusions and discuss future prospects.

The Science of Happiness

Happiness can be defined as the degree to which an individual favorably judges the overall quality of his or her life. In evaluating the progress of individuals or communities, happiness studies use straightforward questions such as “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” and “How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?” These measures allow individuals to personally judge (1) the importance of aspects (e.g. some people evaluate “becoming rich” as more important than others); (2) whether a situation is good or bad (e.g. people think differently about the optimal degree of income inequality); and (3) how satisfactory their outcomes are (e.g. an economically deprived individual might appreciate an extra euro more than a wealthy individual). These subjective/internal measures complement objective/ external well-being measures, such as income, education level and life expectancy (united in the Human Development Index). Although these external indicators are more precise, they do not give a satisfactory indication about overall personal well-being or progress because only a limited number of aspects are included, the importance of its determinants is prede termined and the outcomes are externally judged. Although people are well able to judge their own happiness, happiness measures also include methodological limitations (e.g. wording effects, ordering effects, social desirability bias). Nevertheless, personal happiness evaluations are sufficiently adequate to greatly complement external well-being indicators in evaluating social progress (Stiglitz et al. 2009; IOM 2013; OECD 2013). Therefore, the self-declared happiness levels of individuals constitute a valuable proxy for their overall well-being, and the aggregation of individual happiness levels gives a good indication of community well-being.

Happiness Issues for Immigrants

Migrants would have no particular need to learn from each other if, in any situation, individuals (1) have complete information and (2) make rational choices. These standard assumptions of conventional economic theory are unrealistic in general—and certainly in the context of migration; people’s revealed preferences can diverge from their experienced outcomes because both assumptions are rarely (if ever) met.

Incomplete Information

When deciding to move to another country, immigrants base their expectations on imperfect information about the host country. Many immigrants have spent little or no time in the intended destination country. Thus, what makes them believe that their lives will be improved by moving to that country? This question is easy to answer for refugees, because almost any place is better than the place they are fleeting. In less urgent migration instances, however, most people who want to relocate to another country base their judgment on information coming from personal contacts (often those living in the destination country), online sources and the news. Some migration streams are driven by a romanticized media representation of the country (Mai 2004). Pajo (2007: 192) describes the way these representations sometimes feed a sense that some countries are better than others, a “social imaginary of the world as a hierarchy of countries”— a notion that does not guarantee that the experiences of migrants there will be better.

Migrants are also frequently motivated by the good stories of their personal contacts that live in other countries. The issue is that people tend to highlight the upsides of their migration experience while keeping the downsides to themselves (Carling 2008; Sabates-Wheeler et al. 2009). Those inaccurate representations can be deliberate: For instance, to justify their migration choice against the skepticism of others (or even to assuage their own self-doubts). But they can also be unintentional: in the comparisons people often make between their pre-migration lives and their post-migration lives, many immigrants unconsciously interpret information in ways designed to confirm and rationalize their choice to migrate (see Nickerson 1998 on confirmation bias; Roese and Vohs 2012 on hindsight bias; and the self-affirmation theory of Steele 1988). Consequently, immigrants sometimes provide erroneous advice even though they genuinely want to help others from the same origin to make the best possible migration choice. The following quote (posted in the Ellis Island Museum) from an anonymous Italian immigrant in the early 1900s has become emblematic of the way misinformation can lead to disillusioning outcomes:

I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: first, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.

Many immigrants still tend to have an overly positive view about the destination country, something that can undermine their happiness outcomes after arrival (Benson and O’Reilly 2012; Mähönen et al. 2013).

Rationality of Choices

Following neoclassical economics, a key assumption in some migration theories is that immigrants make the best possible migration decision given the available information (i.e. immigrants are rational actors; Harris and Todaro 1970; Stark and Bloom 1985). Psychologists, led by Kahneman and Tversky (1979), have convincingly challenged this assumption in a more general sense by revealing the extent to which irrationality characterizes human decision making. A migration-related example is that Americans from the Midwest overestimate the happiness gains that could be gained by moving to California (Schkade and Kahneman 1998). The authors explain these excessive expectations with reference to a “focusing illusion”: these Americans from the Midwest overestimated expected benefits by focusing on easily observable differences in life circumstances, such as California’s warmer climate and more relaxed atmosphere. Several migration scholars have argued that an excessive focus on material conditions and other life circumstances when making migration decisions is also evident for international migrants (Bartram 2011; Olgiati et al. 2013; Hendriks and Bartram 2016).

Focusing illusions is an important issue in happiness literature because people generally (i.e. not only immigrants) encounter difficulties in predicting what will make them happy (Gilbert 2006). Happiness researchers argue that the excessive focus on life circumstances is rooted in a common underlying assumption that better life circumstances (i.e. objective well-being) inevitably lead to greater happiness (i.e. subjective well-being) (Kahneman et al. 2006). The “impact bias” is an important driver of this erroneous assumption. The impact bias implies that individuals tend to overestimate their expected (positive) emotional reaction to circumstances and events, because they underestimate the degree of adaptation to changes in their lives (Wilson and Gilbert 2005). For example, a new car brings more happiness than the old car only for a very limited time (if at all)—while an enjoyable activity (particularly one involving engagement with other people) tends to remain enjoyable. Taking insufficient notice of adaptation leads to placing undue weight on life circumstances in one’s migration decisions because people tend to adapt more to life circumstances than to the more intrinsically valued experiences and activities (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005; Frey and Stutzer 2014). Another reason for the excessive focus on life circumstances is that people are overconfident regarding their ability to capitalize on better life circumstances (Weinstein 1980).

However, as discussed in the introductory section, there is more to a happy life than good life circumstances and good life-abilities. Examples of other aspects that are important for the happiness of migrants are the quality of their social networks, their perceptions about themselves and others, and their daily life structure (e.g. what activities do they perform). Moreover, there is heterogeneity between people’s actual circumstances and their interpretation of those circumstances. These differences are caused by temporal comparisons (e.g. a yearly income of $30,000 makes an individual happier when the individual previously earned $20,000, as against previously earning $40,000); social comparisons (a yearly income of $30,000 makes an individual happier when one’s peers earn $20,000 instead of earning $40,000); and depend on the process (a yearly income of $30,000 makes an individual happier when earned with a pleasant job than when earned with a dreadful job). Thus, happiness includes a relative and cognitive component (Brickman et al. 1978; Clark et al. 2008). This component is particularly relevant to happiness outcomes for migrants given the existence of a common status trajectory. Some migrants end up in low-status jobs in the destination country (because their educational qualifications are not recognized, or because of language difficulties, or simply because of discrimination). If they held middle-status jobs in the origin country, then migration has led to a decrease in their relative position, i.e. relative to a local reference group. Once they begin to compare themselves to others in the destination country (perhaps while continuing to compare to others in the origin country, see Gelatt 2013), their happiness might suffer from this decline in status. Nevertheless, people tend to underestimate the extent to which these less tangible aspects influence their happiness (Frey and Stutzer 2014). This is particularly problematic in the context of migration, because immigrants tend to experience a severe loss of social capital, community and status and a major shift in their daily life structure.

The Consequences for Migrants’ Happiness

Migration seems to be the right decision for those immigrants who do become happier through migration (thereby implying that they also achieve other goals). The World Migration Report (IOM 2013) reveals that people moving to countries at a considerably higher level of development generally become happier. Nikolova and Graham (2015) validated this finding by using more thorough matching techniques, confirming that Europeans moving to more developed European states generally become happier after the move. However, migration streams toward more developed countries do not always result in greater subjective well-being. Convincing evidence comes from a natural experiment in which Tongan residents hoping to move to New Zealand were entered into a random drawing. The “lucky” migrants and the “unlucky” stayers were similarly happy before migration, but the migrants were unhappier than the stayers a few years later even though the migrants’ incomes had tripled (Stillman et al. 2015). The happiness consequences for migration streams between similarly developed countries or towards less developed countries are more often (though not always) non-positive (IOM 2013). Hendriks (2015) collected all empirical findings regarding the happiness consequences of international migration. His review confirms that, counter to what one might consider common sense, a considerable share of voluntary immigrants do not become happier through migration. A primary driver of these negative migration outcomes is the loss of social capital and community, which is insufficiently replaced by their new social relationships in the host country (Hendriks et al. 2016).

In addition to happiness consequences for individual migrants, one must consider the consequences of migration for family members and others in the origin community. Migration is typically not solely an individual decision but rather a household decision (e.g. Stark 1991); people migrate not only for their own well-being but also for that of children and other family members (e.g. through remittances). From this angle, migration is sometimes a sacrifice one makes for the sake of others, rather than an attempt to improve one’s own happiness. However, it is not apparent that migration generally results in greater happiness for those who benefit from the remittances. Smith describes the outcomes for some left-behind children as a “transnational disaster”, as increased financial well-being does not compensate for parental absence and its consequences for the development of children (2006: 237; cf. Dreby 2010). More generally, Cardenas et al. (2009) find a positive effect of remittances on origin-household happiness but Jones (2014) finds a negative effect; Gartaula et al. (2012) suggest that outcomes depend on contextual factors describing the specific situation of the origin household in the local community.

The possibility of “inaccurate” migration decisions does not arise only in relation to people who migrated but did not become happier. Some people could benefit from international migration but have not considered or opted for it. Although this possibility has not yet been a serious research topic in the migration literature relating to happiness, it is an assumable proposition given that people are generally averse to risk, uncertainty and loss (Kahneman and Tversky 1979). Some people prefer to stay in their comfort zone (their home country), even though they have a reasonable chance to become happier by moving to another country; more risk-seeking people are generally more likely to migrate (Balaz and Williams 2011). A better understanding of migration outcomes would decrease people’s sense of risk and uncertainty, and thus, their distorting effects on migration decisions. Better migration decisions can be facilitated by improved knowledge regarding the happiness consequences of migration and other forms of external support that facilitate better migration decisions.

The Importance of Collective Action

Governmental institutions and non-governmental organizations can support individuals in making better migration choices by providing more comprehensive and accurate information regarding how an immigrant is likely to experience life in the destination country. These organizations often aim to support individuals in making a well-informed migration choice by informing them regarding official admission and integration procedures, what they can expect from living in their destination country, what their destination society expects of them, and other practicalities (e.g. how the health system works in their host country). However, there are limitations to the influence of public and non-public institutions on immigrants’ choices. When considering the consequences of migration, people tend to have limited confidence in information generated by public institutions (Nye et al. 1997; Norris 2011).

Immigrants hoping to learn about potential migration outcomes frequently turn to others in their social network who have direct experience of international migration (De Haas 2010). The information provided by the people they consult is often useful, but it also comes with important limitations. One issue, discussed above, is that individuals considering immigration can receive distorted information from established immigrants. A second issue is that migrants have heterogeneous migration outcomes due to demographic and socio-economic differences, the particularities of one’s origin and place of residence, one’s migration motivations and many other factors (e.g. Bartram 2013). This point implies that one should consult with peers with similar characteristics. However, most individuals have only a limited number of people in their social network who have experienced international migration, and the number of migrants with similar characteristics is likely to be very small indeed (perhaps even zero). A third issue is that consulting immigrants who moved years ago may lead to outdated insights, given that migration experiences and outcomes may change over time due to changes in migration policies and in the destination society. Consequently, in hindsight, it sometimes turns out that the information received from one’s limited social network is a poor representation of what immigrants will actually experience (as exemplified by the quote from the anonymous Italian immigrant above).

Thus, the individual considering immigration can obtain a better indication of his or her potential migration outcomes when relevant information is available from recently migrated peers who have similar characteristics. A well-organized and collectively acting community is better placed than individuals to communicate the type of information potential migrants can use productively. The active voluntary involvement of a group of immigrants in generating and transferring knowledge that immigrants could not separately generate and transfer is a perfect example of how effective community development can improve people’s well-being.

Yet, stimulating immigrants to share information based on personal reflection is not sufficient for enhancing the possibility of optimal migration outcomes. The problem of memory bias implies that we cannot simply trust feelings of regret or past happiness when evaluating potential future migration outcomes (Roese and Vohs 2012). A method that mitigates the impact of memory biases but still performs well in measuring one’s overall migration outcome is needed. Asking individual immigrants about their happiness both before and after migration can solve this issue. However, surveys of this type are scarcely available because they require coordinating data collection across at least two countries. A solution of some migration scholars is to collect happiness assessments of many immigrants and then compare these to the happiness assessments of non-migrants with similar characteristics (e.g. through statistical matching methods; IOM 2013; Bartram 2015; Nikolova and Graham 2015). Similarly, an evaluation of what destination constitutes the best fit for a certain immigrant (group) can be made through comparing immigrants who live in different destination countries/regions but whose individual characteristics are similar. Hence, cooperation between researchers and the immigrant community can help overcome key problems in promoting favorable happiness outcomes in immigrant communities.

The Migration Happiness Atlas

The overall goal of the Migration Happiness Atlas is to support migrants in making better migration decisions by enabling them to make a more informed choice. For this purpose, the Migration Happiness Atlas makes customized empirical evidence available on the happiness outcomes of migration. This information is based on the voluntary involvement of immigrants in transferring information on their migration experience. The current section will explain this recently developed initiative.

Why an Atlas?

The happiness outcomes of migration are highly dependent on the migrant’s origin and destination. For instance, Turkish adolescents living in Sweden are considerably happier than their counterparts living in Norway, even though the native adolescents in these countries have similar happiness (Virta et al. 2004). Similarly, Bartram (2013) shows that the happiness outcomes in a host country depend on the immigrants’ origins; he finds that Polish migrants to Western Europe become less happy on average, whereas Russians, Turks and Romanians do become happier when moving to Western Europe. It is even likely that there is an interaction between the country of origin and the destination country; one immigrant group might become happier in destination country A than in destination country B, whereas the reverse is true for another immigrant group. Although this interaction has not yet been empirically tested, it is a reasonable assumption given that cultural and linguistic similarities (among other similarities) cause some destination countries to constitute a better fit with certain immigrant groups than other groups. Therefore, migrants cannot simply trust the general finding that moving to happier or wealthier countries makes one happier. Instead, differences between migration streams (the interaction of the country of origin and the destination country) need to be considered as well as differences within migration streams, because happiness outcomes also depend on individual characteristics.

Ultimately, the Migration Happiness Atlas provides customized information to a potential immigrant on his or her potential happiness outcomes when moving from one’s current place of residence to the considered destination. The Atlas is interactive, which means that an individual considering migration can first select one’s current place of residence, one’s considered destination and some personal characteristics (e.g. age, gender, education level, migration motive). The provision of these characteristics is shown in Figure 21.1a. An algorithm uses the provided information to calculate one’s potential happiness development. The happiness outcomes are presented in an atlas to offer people the opportunity to compare different destinations around the world. Figure 21.1b provides an example of the Atlas specified as American expats moving to Germany (which will be further discussed below).

a (top), b (middle), and c (bottom) Visualization of the Migration Happiness Atlas.

Figure 21.1   a (top), b (middle), and c (bottom) Visualization of the Migration Happiness Atlas.

d Visualization of the Migration Happiness Atlas continued.

Figure 21.1   d Visualization of the Migration Happiness Atlas continued.

Why Include Daily Life Happiness?

In Figure 21.1b, we include information on episodic happiness (see the happiness diary) next to the overall outcome of happiness (happiness would be 6.35 when staying in the USA and 5.95 when moving to Germany). Further information on daily life includes information on happiness and time spending by social setting (often based on nationality; Figure 21.1c) and location (e.g. being in public space or at work). The happiness diaries are not strictly needed for making inferences about happiness outcomes because the overall happiness outcomes are already indicated by general happiness measures, such as the measure “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” Nevertheless, for three reasons, the happiness diaries have great complementary value to these general happiness measures.

First, it is important to distinguish between the happiness of the remembering self and the experiencing self (Kahneman 2000). People strive both for the direct experience of happiness and the creation of “happy” memories. However, people’s memorized feelings often diverge from their actually experienced feelings (Redelmeier et al. 2003). Therefore, it is beneficial to communicate to immigrants the happiness outcomes for the remembering self (through the general happiness measures that rely on memory) and the experiencing self (through measurement methods that capture daily life experiences and minimize memory biases; see below).

Second, understanding the reasoning why a certain decision is optimal is the basis for the individual’s willingness to make an informed choice. Therefore, presenting only the mean happiness difference between the considered destination country and home country is insufficient to have a serious impact on the immigrant’s choice behavior. Many factors that can affect a person’s happiness remain unrevealed when using only reflective self-report measures. In a study comparing the happiness of internal migrants and locals in Düsseldorf, Germany, we show that daily life issues are vital in explaining the overall happiness of migrants (Hendriks et al. 2016).

A substantial part of migrants’ happiness disadvantage was explained by daily life issues, such as their lower momentary happiness while being with friends and less time allocated to happiness-producing activities (e.g. sports and social leisure). Therefore, including detailed information on the episodes in daily life in which immigrants feel happier or unhappier than back home will be more convincing to individuals than only including the overall happiness measure.

The third strength of considering daily life issues is that it provides information on a person’s lifestyle. With this information, the lifestyle that produces the most happiness for a particular type of immigrant can be identified. Thus, the data on daily life happiness do not only benefit the immigrant’s migration decision but also support immigrants post-migration in adopting a happiness-producing lifestyle. This can be relevant for both potential and existing immigrants. For instance, it can teach immigrants the importance of making efforts to connect to others, possibly via assimilating into communities, after arrival in their destination country. Another example is that a potential or existing immigrant can develop more accurate expectations about one’s future happiness by comparing the happiness outcomes for different migration phases (e.g. by comparing the happiness outcomes one year after migration to the happiness outcomes three years after migration; see Figure 21.1d).

The Data

Facilitating informed choice is a very ambitious and challenging goal to realize in practice because it requires abundant data and, like most researchers, we have limited resources in terms of money and time. First, one must review all existing empirical studies concerning whether (particular types of) migrants have become happier through migration (Hendriks 2015). These findings are included in the Migration Happiness Atlas. Although this is a useful approach, it provides limited information because the current number of studies is small and the data do not allow for detailed analyses (the studies lack information on daily life happiness).

Therefore, we have started to collaborate with immigrant communities to collect data on the (daily life) happiness outcomes of migration at low cost (either through a longitudinal design or by comparing migrants and stayers). Immigrants are motivated to participate by their community leaders, the prospect of helping their fellow immigrants in becoming happier, and the opportunity to realize benefits for themselves by reflecting on their personal migration experience and lifestyle (previous research has shown that happiness-tracking tools have a modest positive effect on the happiness of the participants; Ludwigs 2016). Offering large monetary incentives is not strictly necessary for acceptable response rates due to the participants’ intrinsic motivation (Groves et al. 2004).

The Happiness Analyzer

The Migration Happiness Atlas is based on a new instrument to track and measure happiness: the Happiness Analyzer. This survey tool allows immigrants to be actively involved in obtaining and spreading knowledge on the happiness outcomes of migration. The Happiness Analyzer is an application that is downloadable on the participant’s own smartphone, tablet or PC and was developed by the Happiness Research Organization to measure happiness in a detailed and efficient way (Ludwigs 2016; The approach to the smartphone application is displayed in an “Onion-model” (Figure 21.2).

The Onion Model.

Figure 21.2   The Onion Model.

The outside layer of the model provides the basis of the model. This basis is a happiness module that collects information on happiness based on reflective and general happiness questions. The happiness module is based on the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-Being (OECD 2013). The OECD proposes to measure three elements of subjective well-being. The first element is life evaluations, which are reflective and cognitive judgments of a person’s life. An example question is “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?”, answered on an 11-point scale (0 = extremely dissatisfied; 10 = extremely satisfied). The second element is affect, which means a person’s positive and negative emotions and feelings. Affect is measured by the positive and negative emotions a person indicates to have experienced in the days before the survey (Diener et al. 2010). A third element is eudemonia (i.e. having a meaningful and purposeful life), which is measured by the flourishing scale (Diener et al. 2010). The happiness module is integrated in a baseline questionnaire that additionally includes questions on the participant’s personal characteristics as well as migration-related characteristics and post-migration practices. Examples of characteristics relating to migration are the migration motive, language proficiency, intended length of stay and one’s pre-existing social network in the host country. Examples of post-migration practices are one’s social and cultural integration.

The second layer of the onion model addresses the limitations of the first layer (i.e. the reflective happiness measures) by collecting information on the day-to-day issues of immigrants. The Happiness Analyzer includes the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) to zoom in to immigrants’ daily life experiences (Kahneman et al. 2004). In the DRM, respondents complete diaries of the previous day in which the feelings experienced during each performed activity are reported. The DRM first asks people to reconstruct their previous day by summarizing their day in episodes (e.g. 7:30–8 am breakfast; 8–9 am commuting to work, etc.). Next the individual indicates where he or she is and with whom. Finally, participants rate how they felt during these episodes in terms of happiness. As a result, detailed information is created about how the respondent is feeling while doing a certain activity, with certain people, and in a given location. Screenshots of the DRM procedure can be observed in Figure 21.3.

DRM screenshots.

Figure 21.3   DRM screenshots.

ESM screenshots.

Figure 21.4   ESM screenshots.

The third layer is generally an optional layer and asks respondents to report their momentary feelings and actions at short notice after receiving each of several signals distributed throughout the day. This methodology, developed by Csikszentmihalyi and Hunter (2003), is called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). It includes similar questions to the DRM (see Figure 21.4). However, a key advantage of the ESM over the DRM is the greater ecological validity; self-reports are provided in the moment and the environment in which the respondent truly experiences the feelings. Hence, the ESM is more precise than the DRM. However, the DRM facilitates better comparisons between daily episodes because it covers the entire day, whereas the ESM covers only certain moments of the day. Consequently, it is not strictly necessary to use both the DRM and the ESM but it is valuable to do so because of their complementary value. Questions specifically relevant for migration studies are added to the DRM and ESM, such as “What is the nationality of the person(s) you were with?” and “What is the language you were speaking during this activity?”

Additionally, with people’s permission, their location can be tracked. It is also possible with the smartphone application to add objective biological markers to our measurements, such as pulse and skin reactivity. Moreover, to collect qualitative information, participants can place notes, voice recordings or pictures in the DRM and the ESM. All the data a participant puts in the application are graphically displayed to ensure high participant motivation.

An Example of a Migration Happiness Atlas Project

Randall Birnberg, a leader of the American expat community in Germany, expressed the willingness of American expats to participate in this project. Their goals are (1) to support American expats who consider moving to Germany, as well as American expats living in Germany, to make better decisions on migration and integration; and (2) to help immigrants gratify their social needs by the improved social capital and sense of community that follow from being involved in a community project. Within two months, a low-cost panel had been started including more than 1,000 American expats living in Germany ( This project illustrates the willingness of immigrants to be part of a community development process that improves the happiness of their fellow immigrants.


In this chapter, we have discussed the value of community development in solving an important issue in immigrant communities. The issue of concern is that a considerable proportion of immigrants do not become happier through migration, which contrasts with their expectations and aspirations. The main cause of these disappointing migration outcomes is that many migrants have inaccurate expectations regarding their migration outcomes. Immigrants in the destination country have abundant expertise on migration outcomes and are thus well placed to provide accurate information on this topic. Unfortunately, however, immigrant communities are currently not sufficiently organized to transfer and expand knowledge from individual to prospective immigrants.

We discussed a science-based initiative, called the Migration Happiness Atlas, which supports immigrant communities in generating and communicating more accurate information regarding the happiness outcomes of migration by collecting information on (how to maximize) the happiness outcomes of migration. This initiative is based on the active voluntary involvement of immigrant communities in the process of transferring and expanding knowledge to prospective migrants. The Migration Happiness Atlas aggregates and transforms the information provided by immigrants into customized and interactive evidence on the potential happiness outcomes of migration for a prospective migrant based on the personal characteristics of the prospective migrant.

Ultimately, the joint effort of researchers and immigrant communities to encourage the right people to migrate will lead to more thriving immigrant communities. Moreover, the process of helping potential immigrants can stimulate a greater sense of community in an immigrant community and can benefit the assimilation of potential immigrants into a community. More generally, this chapter illustrates that a constructive community offers the opportunity to push beyond individual understanding.


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