April 22, 2011 — It’s a dark paradox: The happiest states in America have the highest suicide rates.
The surprising finding comes from a British/American research team looking for clues to why people choose to end their own lives.
“Although one’s own happiness protects one from suicide … the level of others’ happiness is a risk factor,” note Mary C. Daly of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and colleagues. “Personal unhappiness may be at its worst when surrounded by those who are relatively content with their lives.”
Data from Europe suggest that suicide rates are highest in nations whose populations are most well off.
But people in one European nation differ in language, culture, and heritage from those in another. Might the happiness/suicide paradox hold true in the United states, where Americans share the same language and the same basic culture?
Yes, Daly and colleagues report. States whose residents are most likely to report being generally satisfied with their lives tend to have the highest suicide rates.
For example, New Jersey ranks 47th in life satisfaction, according to the CDC’s BRFSS behavioral health survey. But New Jersey also has a low suicide rate, ranking 47th in suicides among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
Hawaii, on the other hand, ranks second in life satisfaction. But the state is near the top of the suicide list, with the fifth highest rate in the U.S.
Why? It may be that misery is relative. Perhaps its similar to wealth: People who have more money than the average person feel poor if they live among much richer people.
Similarly, people may judge their own happiness or misery relative to the happiness or misery of those around them, suggests study researcher Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, U.K.
“Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life. Those dark contrasts may in turn increase the risk of suicide,” Oswald says in a news release. “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 correlation isn’t perfect. California, for example, ranks 46th in life satisfaction but also has the fourth highest suicide rate in the U.S. Louisiana, on the other hand, has the highest life satisfaction rate but one of the lowest suicide rates (40th). But overall, the trend holds.
“People judge their well-being in comparison with others,” study researcher Stephen Wu of Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y., says in the news release. “These types of comparison effects have also been shown with regards to income, unemployment, crime, and obesity.”
The study is published in online by the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.