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Monday, May 23, 2011

The best of places and the worst of places

Paradoxically, the happiest places on Earth seem to have the highest suicide rates. Researchers led by Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick attempted to analyze this conundrum.

For this study, the authors used the United States as a stand-in for the rest of the world. Although extremely diverse, the U.S. does have a unifying language, making it easier to make comparisons. The researchers sampled one million Americans on their suicidal tendencies, if any, and a different 1.3 million Americans on their life satisfaction, if any. They found the same correlation as with the world data, namely that the happiest states tended to have higher suicide rates than the most miserable states.

For example, after adjusting for factors like education and employment, Hawaii is number two in life satisfaction, but has the fifth highest suicide rate. Nevada has the lowest suicide rate in the nation, but is ranked 28th in life satisfaction. New York, the most miserable state, had the 9th lowest suicide rate. The honor of having the highest suicide rate went to West Virginia, which was 34th in happiness, and the happiest state was Louisiana, which was 40th in suicides. While there’s no one-to-one inverse relationship between happiness and suicide rates, these data do suggest a trend.

Although no clear explanation was presented for the discrepancy between average regional happiness and suicide rates, the authors suggest one possible cause. They propose that the unhappy minority living within a mostly happy region are made all the more miserable by comparison with their blissful neighbors.

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