Immigrants to the US tend, on average, to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction later in life than native-born Americans, new research reveals.

Statue of Liberty.

Image credits Rick Zern.

A research group from the Florida State University (FSU) reports that those who immigrated into the American Dream are happier and more satisfied later in life, on average, than those born in the land of the free. However, this effect was not consistent across different ethnic groups — black immigrants, in particular, showed no difference in happiness and life satisfaction compared to their native counterparts.

Happier, but not better off

“We discovered that people who are foreign-born and living in the United States do have higher levels of life satisfaction,” says FSU Assistant Professor of Sociology Dawn Carr.

“We examined life satisfaction because it is a useful global measure for understanding how people are doing on the whole with regard to how they feel about their life. It’s a good way of capturing their overall well-being.”

For the study, the team used data from 7,348 participants aged 60 and older, who had lived an average of roughly 30 years in the United States. The data was taken from the 2012/2014 waves of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

All in all, Hispanic immigrants had the highest overall levels of life satisfaction compared to any other racial group, the team reports. This finding meshed well with previous research of its kind, which found something researchers call the “Hispanic Paradox.” It would be an awesome superhero name, but it’s actually the observation that older Hispanic immigrants in the United States tend to have better health outcomes than non-Hispanic whites — despite more limited socioeconomic resources.

The increased happiness and life satisfaction didn’t apply only to Hispanic immigrants — it was roughly consistent across ethnic groups. Foreign-born blacks were the only group that did not report the same increases in overall life satisfaction as compared to other races.

“The older adult immigrants in our sample adjusted to life in the United States, and they’re thriving more than their native-born counterparts. They seem to have developed a life that provides a good old age,” says Carr.

“It was very discouraging to see this outcome for the black sample. Blacks in general have lower levels of life satisfaction than everybody else and foreign-born blacks do not experience any better outcomes.”

As to why Hispanic immigrants do so well, the team believes it comes down to cultural factors that “are quite beneficial in terms of maintaining well-being.” Previous studies into the paradox have found support for this idea that culture plays a role in their greater life satisfaction, but no specific mechanisms that could explain it were pinpointed. Carr says one possibility is that spirituality or the robust sense of community these people report may play a part.

The team also looked at how education levels correlated to people’s overall life satisfaction. For whites, it’s a pretty linear relationship — more education, higher life satisfaction. But for both native and foreign-born blacks, more education actually decreased life satisfaction. Higher levels of education were also associated with lower life satisfaction for native-born Hispanics.

“That was a puzzling discovery,” Carr said. “This means that education does not seem to enhance the lives of minorities like we might expect.”

“We do not know the reasons for these trends, but we might guess that factors like discrimination are involved, detracting from their overall happiness. For instance, someone who has a college degree, who is in a job with similarly educated individuals who are not minority, might be more overtly aware of the discrimination they’re experiencing.”

Further research is needed to determine exactly what causes these differences in happiness levels later in life among different groups of people, Carr admits. Until then, maybe native-born Americans should learn how to view their country through the eyes of those who immigrated from abroad. If nothing else, maybe it will make them enjoy life just that little bit more. Who can say that’s not a goal worth pursuing, eh?

The paper “Expanding the Happiness Paradox: Ethnoracial Disparities in Life Satisfaction Among Older Immigrants in the United States” has been published in the Journal of Aging and Health.

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