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One might assume that the countries with the highest reported levels of life satisfaction have the lowest suicide rates. At first glance, data from countries that have reliable statistics on suicide would appear to confirm this.

However, as Anne Case and Angus Deaton explain in a sombre but fascinating article for VoxEU, the truth is more complicated. If you look at groups of comparable countries – i.e. western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries on the one hand and the former Soviet block on the other – the correlation lies in the other direction:

“…the highest income countries have high life evaluation and high suicide rates, while the opposite is true in the lower income rich countries. Within eastern Europe, the extraordinarily high suicide rates are again positively correlated with life evaluation. Much the same is true across the states of the US, with life evaluation and suicide rates highest in the West, and lowest in the East.”

To compound the mystery, there are some pretty counter-intuitive relationships between life satisfaction and suicide within particular populations as well as between them:

“Women have slightly higher life satisfaction than men, but much lower suicide rates. Blacks have slightly lower life evaluation than whites, but much lower suicide rates. Married people are more satisfied and are less likely to kill themselves, but while divorce strongly predicts suicide, it has a relatively modest effect on life satisfaction… The effects of personal circumstance on life satisfaction do not predict the effects of the same circumstances on suicide rates any better than spatial patterns of life satisfaction predict spatial patterns of suicide.”

At a time when happiness and related concepts like ‘general well-being’ are promoted as legitimate goals of public policy, Case and Deaton offer a word of caution:

“The lack of any clear relation between suicide and happiness remains a disturbing and unresolved puzzle. Perhaps it is simply that suicide is hard to explain. But perhaps we should also be cautious giving too much weight to self-reports of life satisfaction.”

Governments should of course be concerned for the happiness of their people, but must also ask what the available statistics on the subject are actually recording.

A possible answer to the mystery is provided by the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in an essay for City Journal. Though Bruckner doesn’t address the suicide issue directly, he does point to a relevant societal shift in the perceived purpose of life – i.e. from the seeking of salvation to the pursuit of happiness. In the eyes of modern society, to admit to unhappiness is to admit to profound personal failure:

“Consider the poll, conducted by a French newspaper, in which 90 percent of people questioned reported being happy. Who would dare admit that he is sometimes miserable and expose himself to social opprobrium? This is the strange contradiction of the happiness doctrine when it becomes militant and takes on the power of ancient taboos—though in the opposite direction. To enjoy was once forbidden; from now on, it’s obligatory.”

One can suggest other explanations for the geographical variation in suicide rates. For instance, in both western and eastern Europe, the more southerly countries are generally less suicidal than their northern neighbours, despite being poorer. This could be the result of a sunnier climate, stronger family structures or the enduring influence of religion. An alternative (though non-exclusive) explanation also presents itself, which is that these are cultures in which there is less pressure to be satisfied with life – and where unhappiness is therefore more bearable (and even, in some circumstances, meaningful).

Interestingly, on the two key measures (life satisfaction and the suicide rate) Britain is more like Spain and Italy than the more satisfied yet more suicidal nations of northern Europe. For a non-Catholic and far-from-sunny country with comparatively weak family structures, this is a puzzle.

It may be facetious to suggest that we quite enjoy being miserable, but a well-developed, ironic sense of humour, coupled to a distain for extreme emotions of any kind, could literally be saving lives.

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