The Deadly Side of Happy

Happiest places have highest suicide rates

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) If it's such a happy place to live, one wonders why people would choose to end their lives. But it turns out that the happiest places on earth are also the deadliest in terms of suicide rates.

The happiest countries and happiest U.S. states tend to have the highest suicide rates, researchers from the UK’s University of Warwick, Hamilton College in New York and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco have discovered.

These findings are consistent with the old saying, "Misery loves company." So when people feel they don't measure up to the happy folks around them, it tends to have a more devastating effect.

"Locations where people are most satisfied with their lives have the highest suicide rates."

In explaing the surprising findings, University of Warwick researcher Professor Andrew Oswald said: “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.”

Professor Stephen Wu of Hamilton College said, "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."

This happiness vs. suicide observation has been made from time to time about individual nations, especially in the case of Denmark. The new research found that a range of nations - including Canada, the United States, Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland - each display relatively high happiness levels and yet also have high suicide rates.

The pattern held up in analyzing individual U.S. states. 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.

In Depth

  • 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 as states are not identical, comparing the different areas of the country gave a much more homogenous population to examine rather than a global sample of nations
  • 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
  • Even with these adjustments, there still remained 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
  • 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)
Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 26, 2011
Last Updated:
April 26, 2011