The Apathy Curve

The world's unhappiest and most content are on the move. What about those stuck in the middle?

Nicole Simpson and Linnea Polgreen
Nicole Simpson and Linnea Polgreen
Nicole Simpson and Linnea Polgreen

Intelligent people might disagree on the right response to immigration, but the cause of it seems pretty clear. People move abroad to improve living conditions -- whether economic or political -- for themselves and their families. But what about those who are only somewhat dissatisfied with their lot in life? Apparently they stay home.

In a paper for the Journal of Happiness Studies, economists Nicole Simpson of Colgate University and Linnea Polgreen of the University of Iowa compared the emigration rates of 58 countries with their national happiness scores, as measured by the World Values Survey. What they found is that there's a roughly U-shaped relationship between happiness and emigration: The least happy countries, like Albania and Ukraine, have high emigration rates, but so do the world's happiest countries, like Colombia and El Salvador. Why? Extremely happy countries produce optimistic, confident people more likely to risk relocating overseas to improve their prospects. The rest, it seems, are stuck in the middle.

Intelligent people might disagree on the right response to immigration, but the cause of it seems pretty clear. People move abroad to improve living conditions — whether economic or political — for themselves and their families. But what about those who are only somewhat dissatisfied with their lot in life? Apparently they stay home.

In a paper for the Journal of Happiness Studies, economists Nicole Simpson of Colgate University and Linnea Polgreen of the University of Iowa compared the emigration rates of 58 countries with their national happiness scores, as measured by the World Values Survey. What they found is that there’s a roughly U-shaped relationship between happiness and emigration: The least happy countries, like Albania and Ukraine, have high emigration rates, but so do the world’s happiest countries, like Colombia and El Salvador. Why? Extremely happy countries produce optimistic, confident people more likely to risk relocating overseas to improve their prospects. The rest, it seems, are stuck in the middle.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.