Getting Life: If we're so happy, why are we suicidal?

Published: Saturday, April 28 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

In a various polls and studies, Utah residents are in the top for happiness, but yet also for tendency toward suicide. Wendy Ulrich gives a few tips on improving life's outlook.

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The Center for Disease Control has rated Utah the highest-ranking state for suicidal thinking. This is sobering information — and confusing in light of a recent large-scale Gallup study that ranked Utahns No. 4 in the nation for happiness and well-being.

So, is Utah an outwardly happy place where people are secretly miserable, a place where people lie to researchers about either their life satisfaction or their misery?

A 2011 analysis of suicide and happiness data suggests a less macabre explanation: having lots of happy people around us can be depressing if we aren’t feeling so good ourselves. The general trend is for happier states to also have higher suicide rates. In contrast, the very least happy state, New York, also ranked near the bottom (45th) for suicides (see “Dark Contrasts: The Paradox of High Rates of Suicide in Happy Places” by Mary C. Daly, Andrew J. Oswald, Daniel Wilson and Stephen Wu).

In that analysis, a similar trend showed up that found unemployed people were more likely to commit suicide in regions where most people are working. People were also most dissatisfied with their income or their weight when hanging out with people who make a lot more or weigh a lot less than they do.

In other words, while personal happiness protects us against suicidal thoughts and behavior, suicidal thoughts may worsen when we are surrounded by people who seem a lot happier than we are.

So what can we do when our neighbors’ good fortune gets rubbed in our noses? Should we tell all those happy people to wipe the smiles off their faces and be a little more respectful of our despair? We may be able to take money from the rich and give it to the poor, but it really isn’t possible to take well-being from the happy and give it to the glum. Here are some tips that might work a little better at evening out such disparities:

  1. Talk back to comparisons and shaming messages in your head. Base your self-esteem on your values and strengths, worry less about what other people think, and tune in to the beauty of the mountains, the smiles of children, or the pleasures of good music instead.
  2. It isn’t what happens to us that makes us miserable, it’s what we tell ourselves it means about us. Don’t tell yourself this (whatever “this” is) means you’re a born loser who is never going to be happy. Tell yourself “this” means you’re strong enough to take a challenge, you’re bound to feel better after a good night’s sleep, or you’re proud of yourself for trying hard and not giving up.
  3. To reset your basis of comparison, spend time with people who struggle, not just with the best and the brightest. Part of the reason we feel better when we serve others is because we feel our relative strengths and good fortune instead of just seeing how others have it better than we do.
  4. If you feel you come out on the short end of the stick compared to others, get back to your own mission and gifts. Jealousy is a great way to ignore our own talents and sidestep the risks and hard work required to develop them. Make some goals based on values that matter to you, break them down into smaller steps, and pursue them a little at a time.
  5. Take a stand against bullying. The new documentary, “Bully,” chronicles the devastating consequences of being the brunt of others’ nastiness. Talk to kids about bullying and cut it off at the pass.
  6. Suicidal thoughts are more likely when we feel hopeless. Hope is not about how we expect things will turn out. Hope means assurance that we can find meaning and purpose in whatever happens.
  7. Even good fortune can backfire if we find ourselves thinking, “If I’m so lucky and blessed I should be a lot happier than this. So what’s wrong with me?” Everyone has down times and bad days. Don’t get depressed about being depressed. See it as temporary and fixable.

Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times bestseller "The Why of Work."

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