December 9, 2014

Happiness among natives vs. transplants: A partial solution to the "wealth and happiness" paradox

In an earlier comment, DdR brought up the topic of whether transplants are happier from the higher incomes they enjoy by moving away to work where the grass is greener.

Fortunately, the General Social Survey asks a question about how happy you are in general. I've also created a GSS variable for transplant status at the regional level, which looks for a mismatch between where the respondent was living at age 16 and where they're living now. It uses the Census regions (Pacific, New England, East South Central, etc.). So transplant here doesn't mean you moved from the suburbs of your upbringing to the nearest city, but moving across entire regions. I'll be restricting the focus to whites only, to remove race as a muddying factor in the analysis.

A simple comparison between natives and transplants shows that their happiness levels are indistinguishable: 35% of natives and 36% of transplants are "very happy," while 10% of both natives and transplants are "not too happy" (the rest being "pretty happy").

That is despite the transplants being more educated (33% hold a college degree, vs. 20% of natives), and earning a higher average income ($58K in current dollars, vs. $47K for natives). Any boost to happiness from being upwardly mobile is apparently cancelled out by not belonging to the broader culture of the place where you live.

The picture gets more interesting when we look separately at natives and transplants, and see how upward mobility affects happiness within each group. You can be upwardly mobile without leaving your regional culture, or leaving it behind may be part and parcel of your upward mobility.

The graph below shows how education affects happiness for natives and transplants separately. More education gives only a minuscule boost to happiness, and natives and transplants are indistinguishable — not only how tiny the boost is across education levels (same slope), but also in how happy they are within each education class (same height).

OK, education may not make you happier, but who would doubt the power of money to buy happiness — at least somewhat? The next graph shows how income levels affect happiness, for natives and transplants separately.

Natives and transplants are now only indistinguishable at low and medium levels of income. The lines more or less overlap, whether you earn next to nothing or $100,000. But notice what happens when we compare upper-middle and upper levels of income — natives pull away from transplants in happiness, and the gap appears to only grow and grow.

The transplant line is relatively flatter, whereas the native line has a much steeper slope. Transplants are more or less equally happy (or unhappy), while natives range from kind-of happy to very happy, depending on their income.

This finding provides a partial solution to the paradox of greater income not bringing in that much more happiness. People who earn more are happier, but it's been known that this curve flattens out with higher and higher income. Each jump up the income brackets buys you less and less additional happiness. The econ, psych, and sociology lit has tried to uncover why this is, though usually without focusing on how the big-earners get their money. Like, did they have to leave behind their connections to people and place of the environment that they grew up in?

But perhaps more income does get you the same boost in happiness — that certainly shows up among natives, whose line in the income-happiness graph doesn't flatten out. But only so many upwardly mobile high-earners are going to be drawn from the nearby region. For those who move away in search of higher-status jobs and bigger incomes, upward mobility requires sacrificing other sources of happiness such as roots in family and community, and these losses offset the gains from higher income. The net effect for transplants is a diminishing marginal return of income on happiness (a rising line that flattens out).

In future posts, I'll dig into what those losses are (I speculated it has to do with family and community, but we need to investigate).

For now, though, the upshot is that the best of all possible worlds is to be a high-earner without moving away from the general region where you grew up. But if you're only going to be earning a low or medium-level income, you might as well stay put. You'll be just as happy, plus you won't have to pay all the costs of moving and adapting — not just financial costs but social and cultural costs, too. You'll have a support network already in place.

Happiness is an individual measure, as opposed to social measures like corrosion of community, disintegration of norms, pidginization of language, and so on. I think the most important objections to the transplant phenomenon are social. But this investigation shows that even at the me-first level of happiness, it doesn't pay to leave behind your roots in search of greener pastures.

GSS variables: happy, regtrans (created from region and reg16), educ, realrinc, race


  1. Hi Agnostic,

    Yeah, that graph between the transplants and natives is telling. I've basically worked in New York City my entire life after leaving Upstate NY (small two-year stint in Europe for work as well). While my happiness definitely did climb greatly when I went from earning $40K p.a. to $100K p.a, after that inflection point it has flatlined if not declined.

    Whereas my good high school buddy who stayed behind in our hometown and started his own business (he's expanded it multiple times now), is much happier than I am, even though I earn more than him. I'm not bragging, I wish I could have his level of happiness. I'm envious.

    I think that natives become happier as their incomes grow partially because of status posturing. I can imagine that my buddy feels like he's made it and is better off than the other friends/family members who remained behind but earn a lot less. He doesn't act smug, but subconsciously he must feel superior in some way to his peers.

    Whereas I, have resorted to downplaying any status posturing even though I could afford it. I don't have a nice car, I dine at a few nice restaurants but max once per week, I don't buy new clothes often, etc. Although I'm frugal to begin with, I think it's because I don't give a shit what these other people think of me, probably because they're not my people.

    Your dollar also goes a lot further in non Mega cities. In my hometown you can join the top golf club for $50K (top 25 in the country) or a swanky private golf club with huge pool and beautiful club house for $10K in initiation fees and $400 in dues per month. Whereas the private club closest to me in NYC has an initiation fee of $125K with over $2,000 in dues per month. And the people there are the worst.

    My other buddy is a doctor in my hometown. He purchased a 5,000 sq. ft. home with five acres of land, huge in-ground pool, separate guest house and walk-in wine cellar. School district is top 30 in the state, which is important for his three kids and stay-at-home wife. He paid $700K for his house. This is the exact amount I spent for my very nice but clearly inferior 2br condo.

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    people don't even want to speak to someone when ordering takeout

  3. Status is as important as ever, but how can you feel superior over others if your social life is mostly online. Someone should invent online popularity points that have real monetary value, like Doctorow's fictional 'Whuffie' points.


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