How happy people can drive you to suicide

At university, there was a girl with wavy blonde hair who was always smiling. It was slightly unnerving. We discussed whether she had been lobotomised. She was happy – and it was annoying, so we called her Prozac, which helped to slightly dull the irritation. I was mean in those days.

And now I have the joy of having evidence to accuse Prozac of posing a negative externality – a harsh insult indeed, from an economist. Because, for the rest of us, smiling Prozac was anything but. Just in the way that hanging out with smokers might increase your chance of getting lung cancer, being around happy people could increase your risk of suicide.

Bottom of the table for suicides

Mary C Daly, Andrew Oswald, Daniel Wilson and Stephen Wu look at the happiest places in the USA, and the places with the highest suicide rates. They find an intriguing “paradox”: the happiest places have the highest suicide rates. Utah is the number one state for life satisfaction, but has the 9th highest suicide rate. Meanwhile, New York is ranked 45th for life satisfaction, but also has the USA’s lowest suicide rate. This pattern also exists across countries: for example, Denmark usually does well on life-satisfaction scores, but also has an unusually high suicide rate.

This does make some sense. We know that people tend to care more about how their income levels compare to other people’s than about the absolute level. So perhaps the same pattern exists for well-being and happiness. If you’re unhappy, then having happy people around you can make you feel worse.

Like so many other things, happiness is relative. The full paper is here.

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