Why the Happiest States Have the Highest Suicide Rates

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Worldwide surveys have consistently ranked the Scandinavian countries — with their generous family-leave policies, low crime, free health care, rich economies and, yes, high income taxes — as the happiest places on earth. But this happiness has always been accompanied by a paradox: the happiest countries also seem to have the highest suicide rates.

Is it the long, dark winters facing Finland and Denmark that cause the problem? Or some kind of Nordic depression gene? Or none of the above? A new study suggests the problem is not specific to Scandinavia, finding that high suicide rates accompany high rates of happiness in comparisons of U.S. states as well.

Economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the University of Warwick in England and Hamilton College in New York examined life satisfaction scores provided by 2.3 million Americans state by state, and comparing these with state suicide rates. Utah, for example, ranks highest in life satisfaction — but also has the ninth highest suicide rate in the U.S. The No. 2 happiest state is Hawaii, which comes in fifth for suicides. New York, in contrast, comes in 45th in life satisfaction but has America’s lowest suicide rate.

(More on Time.com: Paradise Paradox: Why Life in Hawaii Leads to Early Death)

The study has been accepted for forthcoming publication in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

Both happiness and crime rates tend to be tied to rankings of economic inequality in states as well as countries — the larger the gap between rich and poor, the less happiness there is and the more crime. This helps explain why the Scandinavians continue to top the charts for most positive outcomes: they have the least socioeconomic inequality in the developed world.

Overall life expectancy also tracks with inequality, with a bigger wage gap meaning shorter lives and worse health — for both rich and poor, though the poor are hit much harder.

Researchers suspect that this gradient is linked to stress caused by our place in the social heirarchy: Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, for example, has found that even in baboons, lower ranked animals have higher levels of stress hormones and worse health. But when status conflicts are reduced, producing a more egalitarian situation, these differences are also reduced.

(More on Time.com: Misery Loves Company, Especially on Facebook)

Studies of British civil servants have also found that stress-related health problems — like heart disease, obesity and stroke — are directly linked with hierarchy, increasing as a person moves lower down the totem pole.

So why doesn’t suicide follow this same gradient? The current study doesn’t provide the whole answer but author Stephen Wu told the New York Times’ Well blog that comparisons with others — comparisons of relative happiness in this case, rather than status — may play a role:

“Perhaps for those at the bottom end, in a way their situation may seem worse in relative terms, when compared with people who are close to them or their neighbors. … For someone who is quite unhappy, the relative comparison may lead to more unhappiness and depression.”

Sadly, this may mean that increasing happiness by reducing economic inequality could paradoxically produce more suicides as a “side effect.” But this is one problem we are unlikely to have, as economic inequality is high and rising in the U.S.

15 comments
pepper.conchobhar
pepper.conchobhar

Suicide is a symptom of hopelessness. Hopelessness from being unable to improve your situation. Socialism directly stops you from improving your life past a certain point. Thus socialism = hopelessness for many people.

SophieBjarnason
SophieBjarnason

All scandinavian countries are sh it, bad weather, boring culture and people really su ck.

JennyRavelo
JennyRavelo

This whole article is based on a myth, Nordic/Scandinavian countries, besides Finland and Iceland, have lower than average suicide rate which is about 11.4

jtl99
jtl99

Interesting theory.   Not a lot of evidence though.  First of all, Scandanavian countries don't really top the list:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate


Just Finland is up there.  Browsing through the topic of suicide by country, I noticed a very interesting trend.  Was looking for a trend with lack of sun.  Didn't actually find too much of one there, even though Greenland does top the list.


Then I looked at promiscuity:


http://www.floatingpath.com/2012/02/14/countries-ranked-promiscuity/


There seems to be quite a correlation there.  Finland, Slovenia, Crotia, Belarus, Austria, Lithuania..


Somewhat of a correlation with divorce rate as well:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_demography  in that those same small east block countries keep popping up, along with Austria.  Belgium is at the top of the divorce rate, and high in the suicide list as well.. though low in the promiscuity list.


OK, but then I looked at income equality:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality


and if you sort by U/N RP, and start where there are actually numbers, there come those same east block countries Finland, Slovenia, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Croatia.. and Austria and Belgium is up there as well again.


What is going on with that??  Are income equality, promiscuity, divorce and suicide related?  Perhaps if you take away human being's primary drive of 'moving up' in the world, they become listless, lose touch with their internal instincts, and become in danger of falling off the rails (?)


AnteCajo
AnteCajo

Uhmm.. you write rubbish, its true that northern countries have the highest sucidie rates but the real  reason is their lack of sun, not because they are one of the richest and wealthiest countries in the world! All norhtern countries are really great example how country should work. They are the peacest and friendlyest people you can met. Just use Canada for example. But let's face it, their money can't replace what they really need, more sun. 

plutosavior
plutosavior

For those classed on the "bottom" end, the answer is Revolution!

getaasciesh
getaasciesh

No, Suicide doesn't come from empty pocket. It comes from loneliness. When you have nobody with whom you share your pain, it builds up pressure inside, hopelessness and eventually it breaks out. I live in Finland. And, problem here I see is not money, or basic needs for living. It is social closeness which is lacking. People don't talk with each other. Even if they are in relationship they live in their own personal space. Me, my, mine and ego causes all. People don't want to change for good, instead they say 'I was born this way baby' and isolate themselves. They are full of pain inside but still try to look cool outside. That just builds up pressure inside and subsequently it becomes uncontrollable. They are totally confused and forgotten how insignificant their life is in comparison to vastness of time and universe. Their ego is better  than life and human connections. Their love for success in physical world is more important than human connection. They have forgotten that life is so brief and there is no other thing more fascinating then life itself. They have forgotten to value their and other lives. 

GershomMontana2006
GershomMontana2006

You know what really drives suicide? Lack of hope. Lack of hope comes from an empty life which results from an empty wallet. Why is the wallet empty? Because the Government/Big Corporate keeps picking it and people can't save up enough to even afford healthcare. How do you define a Tyranny? One of the first signs you are living in a Tyranny is that you can't make a living because of Big Corporations and Big Government picking your pocket every time you get paid.

samaroo96
samaroo96

Atheism is the main cause of suicide in most of the Happiest contry

Joe_Warner
Joe_Warner

This idea of high suicide rates in Scandinavia is nothing but a myth with no basis in reality. Denmark and Sweden have the same suicide rates as the U.S. (actually a tiny bit lower).

South Korea has the world's highest suicide rates with 31.7 suicides per 100,000 people and year. At place 34, you'll find the U.S. (12.0), at place 35 Sweden (11.9), and at place 36 Denmark (11.9). If you look at all the Nordic countries, Finland has the higest suicide rate and rank 19 in the world with 16.8 suicides per 100,000 people and year. (Finland is Nordic, but not Scandinavian).

Source: Wikipedia "List of countries by suicide rate". Google on "suicide rates countries".

It's a shame that Time couldn't bother with the truth, but would rather forward a myth.

joeybennet
joeybennet

I'm not sure how the world ranking shown in Wikipedia calculated suicide rate and what is considered suicide.  Some of the lowest rate countries are not wealthy, but are in "sunny paradise".  But I'll bet if you plot how many people die of cirrhotic livers from drowning sorrows, or other drugs to cope with life's misery's, or drug overdoses.....that are not "suicides", and created a composite score that somehow included these factors, you would see a very different raking.

It just goes to show, that you can create a study that shows any conclusion you want, based on how you set the criteria.  It's the old saying.....Figures don't lie, but liars can figure.

JennyRavelo
JennyRavelo

@AnteCajo You have no idea what you're talking about. Depression and financial problems are the most common reason why people commit suicide and lack of sun, even if it has it's influence, it's hardly the main reason behind depression, it's just a simplistic way to explain such complicated things.


In any case, the average suicide rate is about 11.4,Northern countries, excluding Russia and Finland have lower than average suicide rates according to the WHO report.

AlexandraSam
AlexandraSam

@Joe_Warner 

It is not a matter of how many suicides happen per number of people, it is the reason why people commit suicide. If a country has 5 million inhabitants and commit suicide not because of poverty, can you compare it with a country that has billions of  people and commit suicide because of poverty, or because they can not pay their bills anymore?

Happiness is something that can not be measured and therefore should not be  weighted on the same scale as financial security.