The Impact of Culture on Well-Being: Evidence from a Natural Experiment


This paper examines the effect of culture on subjective well-being. By exploiting the natural experiment of migration we are able to separate the effect of culture (intrinsic cultural disposition, values, beliefs, norms) from other extrinsic institutional, economic and social factors. Using data from five rounds of the European Social Survey we find that holding constant the external environment (living in the same residence country) and controlling for the important socio-demographic attributes, immigrants from countries with high levels of life satisfaction report higher life satisfaction than immigrants from countries with low levels of life satisfaction. The effect of satisfaction in the birth country lasts across generations and is stronger for immigrants who are more attached to the culture of their birth country. Since any observed differences among the immigrants is their cultural background (their birth countries), the results can be interpreted as the effect of culture on life satisfaction. Our results suggest that besides economic and social variables, institutions and personal characteristics, cultural factors play an important role in satisfaction.

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Fig. 1
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  1. 1.

    We have to emphasize that although we analyze the determinants of immigrants’ life satisfaction, we use this special sample purely for a methodological reason: in this way we are able to isolate the effect of culture from external factors (institutions. policies, markets, etc.).

  2. 2.

    The country of origin was identified with the following question: "From what countries or part of the world did your ancestors come?”.

  3. 3.

    Arguably, genuine cultural impact is captured, caused by differences in values, attitudes and beliefs, and the results are free from cultural bias (different response styles or social desirability), or at least are not primarily driven by it (Hui and Triandis 1989; OECD 2013; van de Vijver and Poortinga 1997). Although it is hard or impossible to distinguish between cultural impact and cultural bias, the risk of cultural bias can be managed by careful survey design and translation process (OECD 2013). It has to be emphasized that the ESS tries to ensure optimal comparability and the equivalence of the different language versions of the questionnaires.

  4. 4.

    Demographic characteristics of the sample are given in Table 6 of “Appendix”.

  5. 5.

    We include variables that are standard control variables in the empirical literature (Dolan et al. 2008; Frey and Stutzer 2002): age, squared age, female respondent, education [measured by International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED)], living with a partner, main activity, living in a city, activity limitation (hampered in daily activities by disability or any health problem), household's total net income in logarithmic form, relative income (ratio of household income to average income in the country), and household size.

  6. 6.

    Although our main interest is in life satisfaction, we checked the results using an alternative measure of well-being as well. Happiness was measured on an 11-point scale: “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” Using this variable does not change the inference.

  7. 7.

    On the effect of temporary shocks on well-being, see e.g. Deaton (2012) or Askitas and Zimmermann (2011).

  8. 8.

    As mentioned above, average life satisfaction in the birth country depends on environmental and cultural factors, but we should not expect environment of the birth country to have a sizable effect on immigrants’ satisfaction in the residence country. Therefore, the positive coefficient on average life satisfaction in the birth country can be interpreted as the effect of the cultural component.

  9. 9.

    Moreover, Fernández (2011: 496) argues that “the epidemiological approach is biased towards finding that culture does not matter” since the effect of birth country culture is likely to diminish over time.

  10. 10.

    Excluding mean satisfaction in the birth country from the model, results for immigrants and natives are very similar, thus we suppose that the effect of culture would be the same for natives—if we were able to capture it.

  11. 11.

    Although omitted individual variables could be at least partially responsible for the observed effect of average satisfaction in the birth country if they differ systematically between immigrants from countries with high and low satisfaction levels, we show in the next section that the observed effect remains the same if we control for a richer set of individual characteristics. On the other hand, in line with the literature (Fernández and Fogli 2009; Luttmer and Singhal 2011), we assume that the economic, institutional and social environment of the birth country does not have any sizeable impact on the immigrants’ life satisfaction in their new country. In the next section, we also show that in a model controlling for important characteristics of the birth country the effect of satisfaction in the birth country does not change.

  12. 12.

    We use the integrated World Values Survey and European Values Survey data. We calculate the average life satisfaction in an immigrant’s birth country by computing the weighted mean satisfaction of all respondents in all six rounds of WVS and EVS (five rounds of WVS: 1981–1984, 1989–1993, 1994–1999, 1999–2004, 2005–2007, four rounds of EVS: 1981–1984, 1990–1993, 1999–2001, 2008–2010), and then taking the average of the six mean satisfactions.

  13. 13.

    The data on the share of foreign-born population come from OECD Factbook 2011. We use data for 2005 because for this year they were available for most of the countries.

  14. 14.

    The three questions (0–10 scales) are the following: “Would you say it is generally bad or good for [country]’s economy that people come to live here from other countries?”, “Would you say that [country]’s cultural life is generally undermined or enriched by people coming to live here from other countries?”, “Is [country] made a worse or a better place to live by people coming to live here from other countries?”

  15. 15.

    2851 individuals’ both parents emigrated from ESS countries, and 7321 individuals have a native parent and an immigrant parent. We calculate life satisfaction of the country of origin as the mean of the average satisfactions in the two parents’ birth countries, because with the mean of the satisfactions of the two parental birth countries we capture correctly the potential influence of the immigrant parent’s culture, but the direct effect of the native parent’s birth country culture is captured by residence country dummies.

  16. 16.

    In these specifications, we use a sample of native respondents with a mother from another ESS country (row 2), and a sample of native respondents with a father from another ESS country (row 3). Satisfaction in the parental birth country is calculated as average satisfaction in the mother’s (row 2) or in the father’s birth country (row 3). However, models with satisfaction in the parental birth country calculated like in row 1 of Table 5 (as the mean of the average satisfactions in the two parent’s birth countries) yields similar coefficient magnitudes.


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We thank Gábor Kézdi, Matild Sági and Endre Sik for their comments, as well as participants in the HAS Institute for Sociology Young Researchers’ Conference (Budapest, December 2011), and the 11th ISQOLS Conference (Venice, November 2012). We also thank the useful comments of two anonymous reviewers. Remaining errors are solely ours.

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Correspondence to Gábor Hajdu.



See Tables 6 and 7.

Table 6 Summary statistics
Table 7 Effects of satisfaction in the birth country on subjective well-being, OLS

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Hajdu, G., Hajdu, T. The Impact of Culture on Well-Being: Evidence from a Natural Experiment. J Happiness Stud 17, 1089–1110 (2016) doi:10.1007/s10902-015-9633-9

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  • Subjective well-being
  • Life satisfaction
  • Culture
  • Beliefs
  • Values
  • International comparison
  • European Social Survey