Countries and US 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.
For the study, Andrew Oswald, PhD, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick in England, gathered both US and international data. It included a comparison of 1.3 million Americans picked at random and another sample of one million Americans involving suicide decisions.
Dr. Oswald found that a range of nations, including Canada, the United States, Iceland, Treland and Switzerland-all with relatively high happiness levels—also had high suicide rates.
The researchers also 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.
"Deep down we are creatures of comparison, even though we may not always realize that," explained Dr. Oswald, 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," Dr. Oswald noted.
The finding was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.
According to James E. Maddux, PhD, a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, "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," Dr. Maddux said, "while a healthy dose of downward comparison-otherwise known as 'counting your blessings'--can lead to greater life satisfaction." This comparison explanation is the most plausible, Dr. Maddux said. It beats out the more remote explanation that unhappy people gravitate to locations with happier people.
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, Dr. Maddux said.
However, the findings are no reason for unhappy people to surround themselves with other unhappy people, he 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."