Higher suicide rates in happy places

U. WARWICK (UK) — New research confirms a little known and seemingly puzzling fact: Many happy countries have unusually high rates of suicide.

The researchers—Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick and economist Stephen Wu of Hamilton College and Mary Daly and Daniel Wilson both from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco—suspect the explanation may relate to the way human beings rely on relative comparisons between each other.

“Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life. Those dark contrasts may in turn increase the risk of suicide,” says Oswald. “If humans are subject to mood swings, the lows of life may thus be most tolerable in an environment in which other humans are unhappy.”

The study, accepted for publication in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, uses U.S. and international data, including first-time comparisons of a newly available random sample of 1.3 million Americans. A range of nations—Canada, the United States, Iceland, Ireland, and Switzerland—display relatively high happiness levels and yet also have high suicide rates.

However, researchers note that because of variation in cultures and suicide-reporting conventions such cross-country scatter plots are only suggestive. To confirm the relationship between levels of happiness and rates of suicide within a geographical area, the researchers turned to two very large data sets covering a single country, the United States.

The scientific advantage of comparing happiness and suicide rates across U.S. states is that cultural background, national institutions, language, and religion are relatively constant across a single country. While still not absolutely perfect, comparing the different areas of the country gave a much more homogeneous population to examine rather than a global sample of nations.

Comparing U.S. states in this way produced the same result. States with people who are generally more satisfied with their lives tended to have higher suicide rates than those with lower average levels of life satisfaction. For example, the raw data showed that Utah is ranked first in life-satisfaction, but has the 9th-highest suicide rate. Meanwhile, New York was ranked 45th in life satisfaction, yet had the lowest suicide rate in the country.

The researchers then also tried to make their comparison more homogeneous by adjusting for clear population differences between the states, including age, gender, race, education, income, marital status, and employment status. This still produced a very strong correlation between happiness levels and suicide rates although some states shifted their positions slightly.

Hawaii, which ranks second in adjusted average life satisfaction, has the fifth highest suicide rate in the country. At the other end of the spectrum, for example, New Jersey ranked near the bottom in adjusted life satisfaction (47th) and had one of the lowest adjusted suicide risks (coincidentally, also the 47th highest rate).

“This result is consistent with other research that shows that people judge their well-being in comparison to others around them. These types of comparison effects have also been shown with regards to income, unemployment, crime, and obesity,” says Wu.

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