Subjective well-being varies across ethnic group and across migrant generations in the UK

Migrants who recently arrived in the UK experience higher levels of well-being than natives and established migrants generation.

Post Date
13 July, 2015
Reading Time
4 min read

Migrants who recently arrived in the UK experience higher levels of well-being than natives and established migrants generation.

Poor mental health is a widespread problem. At least one third of all families in England include someone who is currently mentally ill (Centre for Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Report, 2012). Personal costs of poor mental health are accompanied by a negative impact on public finances and on the economy (Layard, 2013).

A large literature recognises that well-being is determined by a combination of adult outcomes, family background and childhood development. However, less is known about how subjective well-being varies across ethnicity and migrant generations, despite the fact that the UK population has been characterized by increasing immigration and, partially as a result of this, has become more ethnically diverse.

In view of this, the ethnic and migrant dimensions of well-being are very relevant. The migration process, along with the process of adaptation and integration that it involves, can be traumatic, causing stress and feeling of alienation and can therefore be associated with an increase in mental illness (Bhugra and Ayonrinde, 2004).

In a recent paper with my colleagues at NIESR I examine the extent to which family migration history helps explain inter-ethnic variations in mental health and life satisfaction.

Using the UK Household Longitudinal Survey (UKHLS), our analysis distinguishes between first generation migrants, second generation migrants and “natives”. We further distinguish between “recent” and “established” migrants, according to whether or not they arrived in the UK within the last 10 years. With regard to ethnicity, we identify seven broadly defined minority groups. We focus on three aspects of mental health constructed from the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ).  These are: Anxiety and Depression; Social Dysfunction; and Loss of Confidence.  Alongside this, we also consider life satisfaction.

We find significant variation across both migration and ethnic dimensions. Furthermore, significant migrant variation exists across all ethnic groups and significant ethnic variation exists for all migrant generations.  Specifically, recent migrants experience better mental health (see Figure 1) and life satisfaction than white natives, and other migrant generations.

Figure 1: Average  Anxiety and Depression  of ethnic group, by generation 


The figure plots the average score of Anxiety and Depression of Ethnicity by generation. The lower scores correspond to a better mental health and are represented by the lines closer to the centre.  The score ranges between 0 and 3.

What is the role of social integration?

What can help explain this variation in well-being among different migrant generations and ethnic groups? Through considering several measures of integration we found that:

  • the level of diversity of the area where an individual lives is not important;
  • people are happier when living in an area where their own ethnic group are well-represented;
  • having difficulty in day to day English, is associated with a significant lower level of mental health;
  • mental health and life satisfaction are worse among those whose friends are mostly of a different race.

In themselves, the data make it difficult to identify whether the effect are causal, so results are interpreted as a pure association.  

Our findings suggest that living in areas with more people of the same ethnicity has a “protective” effect, as shown in previous research (Knies et al, 2014; Longhi, 2014). This may  be due to the enhanced social support, as well as positive identity and higher self-evaluation.

We speculate that although language and communication difficulties represent a barrier to social integration, resulting in mental distress, where integration is difficult, belonging to a social network of others with similar language,race, culture, ethnicity or religion, as well as living in areas with people having similar cultural or religious background may offer an attractive alternative acting as a “cushion” that reduces the cultural distance from the hosting country. This allows one’s own identity and culture to be preserved, as well as help creating a sense of community, mutual support and social cohesion.   

In other words, social interaction with friends of the same race, as well as living in areas with individuals of same ethnic group, may lower the costs associated with the migration process, mitigating the difficulties around adapting and integrating into the host country, and attenuating the distress caused by the distance from one’s own families and country.