Toward a Positive Psychology of Immigrants

For the past 60 years, psychological research as a whole has been dominated by the deficit model of psychopathology that centers on disorder, damage, and mental illness. Thus, the focus of psychology has been mostly on what goes wrongwith individuals rather than on what goes rightwith them, especially among minority populations such as immigrants. Indeed, the vast majority of immigration-focused research has centered on pathological outcomes such as anxiety, depression, substance use, and other challenges to immigrants’ physical and psychological health. This body of research, rooted in deficit models, has resulted in the skewed yet widely-held belief that immigrants undergo primarily adverse experiences in their new homelands and are therefore at greater risk for experiencing pathology and poor well-being compared to their native-born counterparts.

Certainly, immigrants do experience vulnerabilities and adverse outcomes that are connected to the immigration context and conditions of the receiving society, and these vulnerabilities need to serve as a focus of public health prevention and treatment. Our goal is not to criticize prior work that has focused on stressors and pathology, as this work has contributed to understanding of the cultural challenges and stressors that various immigrant populations face. Likewise, it is important not to discount the deep and persistent social-contextual challenges to which immigrants must respond during the adaptation process; discrimination, limited language support, and lack of access to social services are but some of the many stressful challenges that immigrants must navigate. However, the widely-held narrative that immigration results in largely negative psychological outcomes fails to consider variability in coping with stress; family and individual strengths; community strengths; and other cultural assets that individuals and families bring to bear in their adaptation to life in new destination cultures.

In our recent review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, taking a positive psychology perspective, we show that immigrants, like most people, are resilient and possess several strengths that can be utilized to facilitate and maintain well-being in the face of adversity. By understanding immigrant strengths and their cultural underpinnings, researchers, clinicians, and educators can more effectively work to empower immigrant individuals, families, communities, and organizations. Thus, our goal is to shine light on the positive psychological health of immigrants and to encourage the field to better understand the role of immigrant strengths in the social-psychological experiences of immigrant populations worldwide.

Decades of evidence from large-scale studies indicate that immigrants, especially recent immigrants, often report more positive health profiles than native-born individuals across physical, psychological, behavioral, and educational indices (see Alcántara, Estevez, & Alegría, 2017, for a review). This phenomenon has been labeled the immigrantparadox. Other large-scale studies – one examining immigrants from over 43 countries of origin (Frank, Hou, & Schellenberg, 2016) and another examining immigrants from 100 countries of origin (Helliwell, Bonikowska, & Shiplett, 2016) – found that most immigrants reported greater life satisfaction than individuals in their home countries and exhibited life-satisfaction levels similar to those of Canadian-born individuals. These patterns of positive psychological health have also emerged among immigrants residing in other countries such as Finland, Indonesia, and among Hispanic, Black and Asian immigrants in the United States. Furthermore, data from the most recent World Happiness Report (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2018), which assessed immigrant happiness across 113 countries, showed that immigrants’ levels of happiness mirrored those reported by destination-culture individuals, and this was also true of countries ranked as “happiest” (e.g., Finland, Norway, Denmark). Contrary to immigration-focused research rooted in deficit models, these studies, along with several others, provide strong evidence that immigrants report positive psychological health in their destination cultures and do not experience poorer well-being compared with their native-born counterparts.

Given the plethora of challenges that immigrants face during immigration, how are they able to adapt positively to such stressful contexts? In our paper, we outline several critical factors that help to explain why so many immigrants are doing well. These include national conditions of pre- and postmigration societies (e.g., political and religious freedom, access to health care, less government corruption, gender equality), acculturation processes (e.g., ethnic identity, biculturalism, bicultural identity integration), community contexts (e.g., ethnic enclaves, schools, churches, neighborhoods), family contexts (e.g., social support, family coherence, daily rituals), cultural values (e.g., collectivism, familismo, harmony, social connectedness), and character strengths (e.g., religiousness, perspective-taking, hope, social intelligence). Each of these factors is vital to positive immigrant adaptation and should be a central focus in both research and clinical work with immigrants.

Taken together, psychology researchers and clinicians should continue to explore the processes that contribute to positive immigrant adaptation. A positive-psychology perspective promises to advance the field beyond a predominant focus on cultural stressors and pathology to consider immigrant flourishing. As briefly referenced here, there are unique factors associated with the immigration context, as well as positive processes, that underlie such flourishing. Future work should encourage psychologists to move beyond the deficit model and recognize the value of studying positive immigrant processes. These strength-based processes are not only vital to providing a holistic view of immigrant adaptation, but they can also be harnessed as levers of intervention for psychologists who encounter immigrants in their clinical work.

Discussion Questions

  • Which immigrant values and strengths are most salient for specific cultures?
  • What are the psychological mechanisms linking positive processes with well-being?
  • How do positive processes interact with other adaptation processes, whether health-risk or health-promoting processes?

About the Author

Cory Cobb, PhD, is currently a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Cobb works closely with a multi-disciplinary research team around the country that includes, cultural, social, counseling, clinical, school, and developmental psychologists. His research interests are two-fold: (1) prevention science that centers on immigrant adaptation (particularly Hispanics) and flourishing and (b) improving educational outcomes in graduate-level psychology training programs.

References

Alcántara, C., Estevez, C. D., & Alegría, M. (2017). Latino and Asian immigrant adult health: Paradoxes and explanations. In S. J. Schwartz & J. Unger (Eds.), Oxford handbookof acculturation and health (pp. 197–236). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Frank, K., Hou, F., & Schellenberg, G. (2016). Life satisfaction among recent immigrants in Canada: Comparisons to source-country and host-country populations. Journalof Happiness Studies, 17, 1659–1680.

Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9, 103–110.

Helliwell, J. F., Bonikowska, A., & Shiplett, H. (2016, June). Migration as a test of the happiness set point hypothesis:Evidence from Immigration to Canada. Paper presented at the 50th Annual Conference of the Canadian Economics Association, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Retrieved from https://economics.ca/2016/papers/HJ0004-1.pdf

Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. D. (2018). World happiness report 2018. New York, NY: Sustainable DevelopmentSolutions Network.

 

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