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Swedes and Suicide: A Fresh Perspective

Why do Swedes and citizens of other relatively equal nations take their lives at a higher rate than residents of more unequal nations? Four investigators have tapped a wealth of newly available data to help make sense out of a paradox that has dogged the research on economic disparities for decades.

Any analyst who compares the quality of life in more and less equal societies — and points out that people seem to lead longer and more rewarding lives in more egalitarian places — sooner or later runs into the “suicide” defense.

If greater equality does so much good, defenders of inequality will invariably and accusingly ask, then why do more equal nations like Sweden and Denmark have higher suicide rates than nations with less equality?

Egalitarians have always had trouble with this suicide defense, mainly because this defense of inequality rests on a statistical fact: The more equal nations of the developed world do have higher suicide rates than the less equal.

But these more equal nations, as science journalist Maia Szalavitz observed earlier this month, also have fewer homicides, higher levels of trust and health, and just plain more happiness. What’s going on here?

Maybe long, dark winters, some have argued, are driving Scandinavians to take their own lives. Maybe some deeply rooted cultural factors are playing out in ways we don’t yet understand. Or maybe, suggests a new paper from two academic economists and two analysts with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, we really don’t have to grasp at theoretical straws any more.

Mary Daly, Andrew Oswald, Daniel Wilson, and Stephen Wu, tapping a treasure chest of newly available data from the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, have documented — for the first time ever — that what they call the “happiness-suicide paradox” doesn’t just operate in dark, cold climes. It’s playing out right here in the United States.

New York, one of America’s most economically unequal states, rates 45th in the nation for “life satisfaction,” a researcher code phrase for happiness. Yet New York has America’s lowest suicide rate. Much more equal Utah, the state ranking first in life satisfaction, has the nation’s ninth highest suicide rate.

The four authors behind Dark Contrasts: The Paradox of High Rates of Suicide in Happy Places, forthcoming from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, have crunched their data to take “differences in age, gender, race, education, income, marital status, and employment status” into effect. The paradox still holds.

And that brings us back to the original question: What’s going on here? How can happier, more equal populations have this greater suicidal hurting within them?

“A detailed conceptual explanation for the paradox,” the authors acknowledge, will have to “await future research.” But they do take a crack at an explanation.

We need first to reject the “ecological fallacy,” the four note, the notion “that individual members of a group have the average characteristics of the group at large.” If you live in a society where the vast majority of people seem to be happy, in other words, that doesn’t mean that you are going to be happy, too.

In a more equal, happier society, that becomes a problem — for the unhappy. They live surrounded by people doing just fine.

“Personal unhappiness may be at its worst,” as the authors put it, “when surrounded by those who are relatively more content with their lives.

“Personal unhappiness may be at its worst,” as the authors put it, “when surrounded by those who are relatively more content with their lives.”

The four analysts note a variety of other research efforts that point in this same direction. Twenty years ago, for instance, analysts found that “suicide rates by the unemployed seem to be higher in low‐unemployment regions.”

“Discontented people in a happy place,” the authors conclude, “may feel particularly harshly treated by life.”

We have in that dynamic, Dark Contrasts intimates, a tragedy that needs confronting, not a reason to reject the equality that helps leave societies, from Sweden to Utah, happier and healthier places.

  • Eugenio Macias

    Your article states, “twenty years ago analysts found that suicide rates by the unemployed seem to be higher in low-unemployment regions.” That’s correct and incorrect. It should include “and would be even higher if you include those who die at an early age for one of many reasons.”

  • Baloney

    Alaska, by far, has the highest suicide rate in the U.S., so climate cannot be ruled out as a factor.

    Oh brother, now here come all the lame Sarah Palin jokers. sigh…

    • PurpAv

      The native American suicide rate is high. Probably skews Alaska high

  • Statistic truth

    Look up your facts. Sweden doesn’t have much higher suicide rate than the United States. In fact the suicide rate for males is higher in the United States. The countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe all lie in the Eastern part of Europe where most countries are poor, undeveloped and undemocratic. Lithuania, Belarus, Hungary, Latvia, Slovenia, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia and Montenegro, Estonia, Switserland, Croatia, Belgium, Finland, France, Austria, Poland and the Czech republic all have higher suicide rates than both Sweden and Denmark.

  • Leonid Breshnev

    Sweden in fact has a slightly lower suicide rate than the US (2011) and out of the countries ranked higher than Sweden, Denmark and the US I can only find three wealthy and equal nations – Belgium, Austria and France. It´s mostly places like Russia, Moldova, South Africa and Guyana. The myth of the high suicide rates in Sweden and Denmark was according to persistent rumors created by the Soviets to point out the failure of “social democracy” or non-revolutionary socialism.

  • bob

    it is the male suicide rate that is high. hmmmm

  • anon

    men have to sit to pee by-law in sweden

  • Elizabeth Hayes

    Among citizens of more “equal” countries, the suicide rate is high among males. This is because these countries see equality as making life as easy and fulfilling as possible for women, in itself not a bad thing, but they do so at the expense of men. They give crimes such as rape and abuse extra harsh punishments when the victim is female by law, that’s not very equal is it, they will ignore or otherwise half heartedly deal with abuse suffered by males, they show a play called SCUM (Society For Cutting up Men) to school children where they give girls soft cushions and comfortable chairs and sweets and goodies while boys have to sit on the floor and get nothing, now for all this talk of ~patriarchy~ (a recent feminist lie that has seeped into the mainstream) have you ever even once seen anything like this the other way around?
    If your son came home every day with bruises from being kicked by girls while they screamed “you can’t hit back I’m a girl”, learned the feminist rewritten history, was told that he is a defective incomplete female and is to blame for rape and genocide and war, was made to sit on the floor while his female classmates were given sweets and comfortable seating just for being female and was forced to watch a play about murdering the male population and how evil he is just for existing, if he tried to tell you about it but you didn’t think anything of it and he didn’t have a father to go to because fathers have no right to access by default, if you later found him hanging in the wardrobe, would you be surprised?

  • Denise Matzavinos

    Its dark six months out of the year and boring. No challenges. They supposedly “have it all” but that does not bring happiness. Perhaps calling out with faith and spirituality to a Higher Power, would give meaning and purpose in life. These areas are completely dead spiritually.

  • Jerry Blair

    Grt a reality check people…QUESTION EVERYTHING >>>>TRUST NO GOVERMENT…And DO NOT CONFORM !!!!

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