22 April 2011

Why are the happiest places also suicide hotspots?

by Kate Melville

The happiest countries (and happiest U.S. states) have the highest suicide rates; say an international team of researchers, who have pulled together a study that attempts to explain this seemingly paradoxical situation.

The study, appearing in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, shows that a range of nations including Canada, the United States, Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland, display relatively high happiness levels and yet also have high suicide rates.

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

The researchers found that 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 between States even fairer and yet more homogeneous by adjusting for clear population differences between the states including age, gender, race, education, income, marital status and employment status. But there was still a very strong correlation between happiness levels and suicide rates although some states shifted their positions slightly. Hawaii then ranks second in adjusted average life satisfaction but has the fifth highest suicide rate in the country.

The researchers (Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick, UK, Stephen Wu of Hamilton College and Mary C. Daly and Daniel Wilson both from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco) believe the key explanation that may explain this link between happiness and suicide rates draws on ideas about the way that 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. 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," said Oswald.

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Source: University of Warwick