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Would Moving to a New City or Country Make You Happier?

New research examines geographical effects on people's happiness.

Source: Pxhere

A long-standing debate in the field of psychology has been whether moving to a new location makes people happier. One school of thought says yes. In fact, it may be exactly the type of "fresh start" people need to re-calibrate their happiness. Another suggests that while a move might provide us with a temporary lift in mood, it is most common for our happiness to return to its baseline, pre-move level.

A new analysis provided in this year's World Happiness Report adds context to this unsettled debate.

The authors of the report, led by a team of researchers at the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, conducted an analysis dating back to 2018 in which they compared happiness levels among people who were natives of a given country versus immigrants/foreigners. The idea was to assess whether non-natives’ levels of happiness corresponded more closely to that of their home country or their adopted country.

Interestingly, they found that people who moved to a new country seemed to largely adopt their new country’s average level of happiness: “We split the responses between the locally and foreign-born populations in each country, and found the happiness rankings to be essentially the same for the two groups, although with some footprint effect after migration, and some tendency for migrants to move to happier countries, so that among the 20 happiest countries in that report, the average happiness for the locally born was about 0.2 points higher than for the foreign-born.”

In other words, moving to a happier country could plausibly make you happier. By the same token, moving to a less happy country could reduce your level of happiness. And there's nothing to suggest that the same pattern of results wouldn't apply to cities as well. (Speaking of cities, the researchers found Helsinki, Finland; Aarhus, Denmark; and Wellington, New Zealand to be the happiest cities in the world, and Washington, Dallas, and Houston to be the three happiest cities in the United States.)

Three other insights are worth noting from the report:

1. The gap between the happiest and least happy countries is enormous. To measure worldwide happiness, the scientists used the following question: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

The gap between the happiest and least happy countries is massive. The top 10 happiest countries (Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, Austria, and Luxembourg) scored an average of 7.5 on the life satisfaction question above. The bottom 10 (Afghanistan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Central African Republic, Tanzania, Botswana, Yemen, Malawi, and India) averaged 3.3.

Anyone who has experience with psychological scales will attest to the magnitude of this difference. A one- or two-point difference would be impressive here. The fact that there is a four-point difference between the top and bottom countries is simply staggering.

2. Smaller countries are getting happier; larger countries are not. Practically speaking, there are two ways to quantify worldwide happiness. One is to weight each country’s happiness to the proportion of the worldwide population it represents. Another is to treat each country as equal to all the others. Think of it as the House and Senate versions of the happiness equation.

When you compare these two perspectives over time, the proportioned data shows a decrease in worldwide happiness from 2014 to 2019, while the unproportioned data shows a modest increase.

This means one thing: Happiness levels are improving in smaller countries and worsening in larger ones. And even when you remove the largest five countries (China, India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil) from the analysis to avoid possible outlier effects, the trend remains.

3. Urbanites are happier than country folk, or at least they were prior to coronavirus. Think back to a time before cities were ravaged by Covid-19: Were city-dwellers happier than country-folk? The answer is a resounding yes. The scientists calculated the happiness average for the worldwide urban population to be 5.48, compared to 5.07 for the worldwide rural population. The differences were largest in East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by South Asia, Southern Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Only 13 of the 150 countries surveyed showed the opposite trend. Which showed the biggest reversal? Lebanon, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Egypt. So, if you’re a rural type and you're considering a move, perhaps one of those countries should be on your shortlist.


Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, eds. 2020. World Happiness Report 2020. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network

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