More Happiness, More Suicide?

April 27, 2011
Dinah Miller, MD

Why is it that the happiest places also have the highest suicide rates?

The following was originally posted to the HCPLive network blog Shrink Rap.

On Tara Parker-Pope's NY Times Well Blog, she tells us that places where people are the happiest, for example Denmark & Sweden, also have the highest suicide rates. This is perplexing.

And apparently, the various United States are also ranked. New Jersey, where I grew up, is the 47th happiest state-- surprising given Full Serve gasoline, good pizza, and beaches. You were looking for something more out of life? Also it has the 47th suicide rate, so the miserable apparently tough it out.

Ms. Parker-Pope writes:

After analyzing the data, the researchers found a relationship between overall happiness and risk of suicide. In general, states with high levels of life satisfaction had higher suicide rates, according to the report, which has been accepted for publication in The Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

“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,’’ said Stephen Wu, associate professor of economics at Hamilton College. “For someone who is quite unhappy, the relative comparison may lead to more unhappiness and depression.”Dr. Wu noted that other studies have found that people react differently to low income or unemployment depending on how common it is in their community. “If a lot more other people around them are unemployed, it doesn’t seem so devastating,’’ he said.

I'm not sure one idea leads to another. Could there be another factor here? How do suicide rates correlate with the availability of mental health professionals, for example? Or with the price of chocolate in a give region? And how happy is my state?