'Happiest' States Show Highest Suicide Rates: Study

Finding may be explained by people's tendency to compare themselves to others

By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, April 25 (HealthDay News) -- Countries and U.S. states that report the greatest number of satisfied inhabitants also report the highest suicide rates, new British research indicates.

Seemingly contradictory, the findings are probably explained by what the study authors describe as the tendency to constantly compare oneself to others.

"Deep down we are creatures of comparison, even though we may not always realize that," explained study author Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick, so living in a place where there are lots of satisfied people may make depressed people feel even more desolate.

That tendency to compare has been well known about the average person, he said. "What our study shows, rather remarkably, is that is it also true of the extremely depressed," Oswald noted.

The finding is published in the April issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

For the study, Oswald gathered both U.S. and international data. It included a comparison of 1.3 million Americans picked at random and another sample of 1 million Americans involving suicide decisions.

Oswald found that a range of nations, including Canada, the United States, Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland -- all with relatively high happiness levels -- also had high suicide rates.

They tried to confirm the relationship by looking at two sets of data from the United States only. They found the states with many people who were satisfied with life showed higher suicide rates than states that had residents with typically lower levels of satisfaction.

Utah, for instance, ranked first in life satisfaction but has the ninth highest rate of suicide in the country.

New York ranks 45th in life satisfaction, but had the lowest suicide rate.

When Oswald adjusted for factors such as age, gender, education, marital status, jobs and education, there was still a link, although the rankings changed. Hawaii, for instance, was second in satisfaction with life but fifth-highest in suicide rates. Meanwhile, New Jersey was 47th in life satisfaction but had one of the lowest suicide rates.

The findings did not surprise James Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"There is an abundance of research evidence accumulated over several decades that people constantly engage in what is referred to as 'upward comparison' and 'downward comparison.'"

For the former, of course, you compare yourself to those you see as better off. The opposite is true for downward comparisons.

''Too much upward comparison can lead to dissatisfaction with one's life and possibly to depression," Maddux said, ''while a healthy dose of downward comparison -- otherwise known as 'counting your blessings' -- can lead to greater life satisfaction." Research has shown that making a list of things you are grateful for at least two or three times a week can boost life satisfaction, he said.

This comparison explanation is the most plausible, Maddux said. It beats out the more remote explanation that unhappy people gravitate to locations with happier people.

However, the findings are no reason for unhappy people to surround themselves with other unhappy people, Maddux noted.

"They would be better off talking to a few relatively happy people and asking them how they manage to be happy," he said. "That way they might learn something useful."

More information

To learn about how to choose a psychologist, visit the American Psychological Association.

SOURCES: Andrew Oswald, Ph.D., professor, economics, University of Warwick, U.K.; James Maddux, Ph.D., professor, psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; April 2011 Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization

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