Crisis, happiness and suicide

While driving home from a family vacation in the West of Denmark (Jutland) today we were listening to the news on the radio. The news had two stories, which in some odd way were related to each other as both stories were about happiness. The first story was about Denmark (again!) being ranked number 1 in something called the World Happiness Report. The second story was more sad – it was about a 77-year-old Greek man who killed himself in Athens’ busy Syntagma Square on Wednesday morning. The man apparently killed himself in disappear over his own and his country’s economic situation.

Going through the international media one gets the impression that the sad events in Athens was a general tendency across the crisis hit South European countries. However, the stories made me think about the connection between the economic crisis, happiness and suicide.

Apparently we Danes are very happy about life and Greeks are so miserable that they kill themselves in big numbers. The problem is just that does not exactly fit the empirical facts – at least not if we compare the suicide rate in Denmark and Greece. In fact Danes are more than three times more likely killing themselves than Greeks. According to data from the World Health Organization the suicide rate in Denmark was 11.9 suicides per 100,000 people per year in 2011. In Greece the similar number was 3.5.

Interestingly Danes are more suicidal than all of the PIIGS. The suicide rate in Portugal is 7.9, in Italy it is 6.3, in Ireland 11.8 and in Spain 7.6. So one can hardly argue that scores of people are killing themselves in disappear over the economic crisis. Southern European generally are not very suicidal – contrary to Scandinavians.

Obviously journalists love the story that economic crisis leads to a surge in suicides. The stories about people jumping from skyscrapers during the Great Depression in the US is also widespread. However, the stories are generally not true. No can not find a strong correlation between economic crisis and the level of suicides in a nation. I am not saying that economic crisis does not impact the number of suicides, but other factors are far more important (the fact that we have long and dark winters in Scandinavia might explain something…). Anybody saying anything else should explain why Danes and Finns (number 1 and 2 in the “Happiness” ranking) are killing the themselves in much greater numbers than Greeks or Italians. Yes, the number of suicides in for example Greece has increased since 2008, but saying that primarily is a result of the economic crisis is simply to farfetched.

As a Dane I can only wonder why we apparently are so happy and then at the same time kill ourselves in great numbers. Dare I say there is a survivorship bias in the survey?

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7 Comments

  1. Lars – When I lived for a period in Sweden (1976-78) I was surprised by the suicide rate. It was a time when the Swedish Welfare State was in full swing. At the time the big news was Ingmar Bergen leaving Sweden for Monaco´s tax haven because he was paying 100% MTR!
    It was funny to see that “everyone” in Stockholm had a boat, which was usable only 3 moths a year. Yes, they could consume 100% of income because they had nothing to worry about, being “protected” as the saying goes from “womb to tumb”! Maybe that´s the problem with suicide rates in Scandinavia being so high. People say they are happy, but with “nothing to worry about” life can be boring and maybe, to many, “depressive”. Thus the high suicide rate.

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  2. Marcus, I think that might actually be an explanation. I also think there is cultural issue – we are conformists in he Scandinavian countries. Scandinavians don’t like discussions. We don’t want to stand out – we don’t want to be different. Therefore, when we are asked whether we are happy we think we should answer “yes” to make other people happy. We don’t want trouble. Just look at the political debate in the Scandinavian countries – the differences between left and right are very small and everybody supports the “welfare model”. However, everybody is also cheating on taxes and despite of supporting income redistribution voluntary contributions to charities are much lower than in the US.

    My point is that we might not be as happy as the “happiness ranking” is indicating.

    Reply
  3. That´s true. Anyway, what does “being happy” means?
    Since the early 90s, the Swedish “protective system” has changed to being less protective. Has the suicide rate decreased significantly?

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  4. Marcus, I am not sure about that. Swedes are even more suicidal than Danes (12.7 vs 11.9). What might surprise some people is that the murder rate actually also is quite high in Sweden.

    Reply
  5. Happy conformity means being outside that “bubble” is more emotionally taxing perhaps?

    Reply
  6. Lorenzo – exactly my point even though I speculate wildly. My point is however that saying that suicides are caused by bad economic conditions really is a quite bad model.

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  7. Surely the change in suicide rates is a more relevant measure – unfortunately it seems to be quite hard to find up-to-date, time series data, by country. But just looking at the situation in Greece, against a background of low-suicide incidence and attempts, would suggest that the economic crisis is having an effect, particularly given the proven links between poverty, depression and suicidal thoughts. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(11)61638-3/fulltext

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