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Global Struggles

Swedes and Suicide: A Fresh Perspective

Research & Commentary
April 26, 2011


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.”

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.

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