Unhappiness causes increased risk for suicide. Cultural and economic factors matter. Modernization, social integration, and psychological factors matter too. Many individuals who display a strong desire to die also have a strong desire to live and may decide to do so as long as the necessary support can be obtained. To understand and provide the environment that is providing for such support is our all and policy makers task for a more human and better world.
Cultural and Economic factors matter
Park and Petersen (2014) refuted the happiness-suicide paradox by looking at the correlation between happiness level and suicide rates in the social environments most relevant to individuals, such as family, friends, colleagues, and neighborhoods. As a result, they found that “happy cities had low suicide rates and that unhappy cities had high suicide rates” (Park and Peterson, 2014, p. 320). Daly, Oswald, Wilson, and Wu (2011) arrived at the opposite ‘paradoxical’ conclusion by looking at US state-level, a too high level of socioeconomic environment abstraction that might be less relevant for the study of individual suicide cases.
Intuitively one may consider unhappiness as a cause for suicide, and in fact, Koivumaa-Honkanen, Honkanen, Koskenvuo, and Kaprio (2003) confirmed in their study a linear relation between decreasing happiness and the risk of suicide. Stack (n.d.) found that economic stressors were the second of eight most important factors for suicide cases studied in his research. Only relationship related stressors were more significant.
Unemployment is a direct suicide risk and also can indirectly cause financial and relationship problems that lead to additional unhealthy behavior further driving the negative spiral towards perceived unhappiness. Employment as a role expectation is seen to affect more males (Stack, n.d.), while relationships are more attributed to females (Till, Tran, and Niederkrotenthaler, 2016). Therefore a high socioeconomic status for men’s economic success and successful relationships providing women a feeling of belongingness to and usefulness for society are critical for gender specific life satisfaction. While men commit more suicide than women, the primary concern about relationships may be an explanation for an increased rate of female committers of homicide-suicides as evidenced in Japan (Satoh, 2016).
As a further example from a study in Japan, the combination of high working hours, low active leisure time, and low income was found to be especially toxic for suicide prevention (Akito, Noriko, and Nobuyuki, 2014). Inoue et al. (2016) are adding marital status of ‘divorce’ to the list of suicide risk factors especially relevant for male. Compared to above conclusion that successful relationships are more important for women, divorce may be of significance for men more from an economic perspective. Further studies would need to provide further evidence for that assumption.
Low or intermediate social status, except disliked higher class professions such as dentists (Stack, n.d.), have been attributed to increased risk for suicide. As found by Wada et al. (2012), “management workers showed the highest increase in the rate for suicide from 1980 to 2005 (271%)” (p. 3), what potentially could change the less suicidal situation of the higher worker classes in case of ongoing increase of pressure and stress levels as caused by economic crisis and recessions. Tanji et al. (2015) found that people with neurotic personality tendency were especially prone to develop depression and suicidal ideas as a consequence of economic crisis as experienced 1998 in Japan; neuroticism as finding that might be considered for the assessment of the global economic crisis in 2008 too.
Above socioeconomic arguments support that ‘Economic stress factors negatively impact happiness and increase the risk for suicide’. However, what kind of factors do affect what other factors in what dependencies is very complex and for sure needs further detailed research.
Modernization, Social Integration, and Psychological factors matter too!
So far we have discussed mainly economic and relationship aspects. As I have elaborated in my other happiness-related articles, economic factor is but one set of contributors to subjective well-being, and happiness, as well as to dissatisfaction with life and unhappiness.
Modernization, respectively the interdependent processes of industrialization, urbanization, and secularization are relevant for the theories of (un-) happiness and suicide too (Stack, n.d.). Traditionally the individual without strong bonds to the society was expected to suffer from meaninglessness and suicide potential would increase. However, in the postmodern era the new generations began to adapt to modernization effects and became even less suicidal.
Social integration needs to be balanced. Any lack or excess of regulation or lack or under or over-integration may lead to social distress on individuals.
Regarding the human life cycle, Stack (n.d.) found that “with increased age, one has more accumulated advantages (e.g., high salaries, high prestige) to lose from failure in the labor market and, hence, suicide rates tend to increase with age” (p. 166). This confirms the common wisdom that the more one has, the more one has to lose, and this isn’t a firm basis of an independent existence. Stress factors for elderly can increase, even in the case of secured pension plans. Suicide rates for man increase with age, while for women the mid-age represents the suicidal peak (Stack, n.d.). Key stress factors among elderly are “(a) economic strain; (b) a deepening (p. 166) sense of fatalism triggered by physical illness; (c) sensory and perceptual losses; (d) the increased popularity of secular solutions such as euthanasia to pain; (e) loss of friends and spouse through death; (f) loss of work-related roles that provided meaning; (g) institutionalization and the associated loss of freedom; and (h) the increasing costs of health care” (Stack, n.d., p. 167)
Marriage as a domestic integration factor prevents from a couple of suicidogenic conditions, such as increased financial pressures that are often experienced in case of divorce. Parenting provides for a meaningful practice in egolessness that is conducive for reducing self-destructive egoistic behaviors. Research has found that the higher the birth rate comparatively was, the lower the suicide rate (Stack, n.d.).
Religion reduces the suicide rate through effects related to ‘social collectivism’ and belongingness. Studies showed that “no religious affiliation was the most important variable (of 21) associated with the variance in suicide” (Stack, n.d., p. 170)
Community Integration – Migration: “Internal migration can break important ties between the individual and the social system, including bonds to relatives, co workers, familiar geography, and neighbors” (Stack, n.d., p. 171). Immigrants in some studies were more affected by the risk for suicide than native citizens. Regarding new roles in society, there is more acceptance for, for example, women who are working mothers, what reliefs pressure from stigmatization and allows for more life role options. Totalitarian states, in contrast to democracies, cut on the freedom of its citizens and nurture a sense of fatalism that increases suicide (Stack, n.d.).
Wijsbeck (2012) reports an assisted suicide case where it was judged that the sole source of meaning in the life of the suicide seeker had disappeared so the person could not go on, nor could she bring herself to adopt another ultimate goal to live for. Should she have tried harder? For sure the loss of personal integrity in that sense seems to be unbearable.
Factors for happiness aren’t only of socioeconomic nature. Neither are the reasons for suicide. There are powerful psychological happiness factors too, such as meaningfulness, purposefulness, and spiritual maturity through mindful living that need to be applied not only to understand how subjective well-being can be increased, but how risks for suicide and related underlying factors for unhappiness can be understood and addressed.
Let’s never forget, as Shimizu (2016) puts it aptly, that “many individuals who display a strong desire to die also have a strong desire to live and may decide to do so as long as the necessary support can be obtained” (p. 233).
For further posts directly related to the discussion of ‘happiness factors,’ please see:
- The cultural shaping of happiness
- The relationship between age, socioeconomic factors, and happiness
- Happiness can be learned
For Japan-specific angles and conditions need to be assessed. Conclusions and their impact on policy may be depending on Japan’s unique combined development of traditional and modern culture. Separate posts to address Japan’s challenges between feudal traditions, social responsibility, and global modernization. Please see also tag “Japan.”
Akito, T., Noriko, S., & Nobuyuki, M. (2014). Combined Effects of Working Hours, Income, and Leisure Time on Suicide in All 47 Prefectures of Japan. Industrial Health, 52(2), 137-140.
Daly, M. C., Oswald, A. J., Wilson, D., & Wu, S. (2011). Dark contrasts: The paradox of high rates of suicide in happy places. Journal Of Economic Behavior And Organization, 80435-442. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2011.04.007
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Koivumaa-Honkanen, H., Honkanen, R., Koskenvuo, M., & Kaprio, J. (2003). Self-reported happiness in life and suicide in ensuing 20 years. Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, 38(5), 244.
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2014). Suicide in happy places revisited: The geographical unit of analysis matters. Applied Psychology: Health And Well-Being, doi:10.1111/aphw.12030
Satoh, F., & Osawa, M. (2016). Trend of homicide–suicide in Kanagawa Prefecture (Japan): Comparison with western countries. Medicine, Science And The Law, 56(4), 258-263. doi:10.1177/0025802416668769
Stack, S. (n.d). Suicide: A 15-year review of the sociological literature part I: Cultural and economic factors. Suicide And Life-Threatening Behavior, 30(2), 145-162.
Stack, S. (n.d). Suicide: A 15-year review of the sociological literature part II: Modernization and social integration perspectives. Suicide And Life-Threatening Behavior, 30(2), 163-176.
Tanji, F., Kakizaki, M., Sugawara, Y., Watanabe, I., Nakaya, N., Minami, Y., & … Tsuji, I. (2015). Personality and suicide risk: the impact of economic crisis in Japan. Psychological Medicine, 45(3), 559-573. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001688
Till, B., Tran, U. S., & Niederkrotenthaler, T. (2016). Relationship Satisfaction and Risk Factors for Suicide. Crisis: The Journal Of Crisis Intervention And Suicide Prevention, doi:10.1027/0227-5910/a000407
Wada, K., Kondo, N., Gilmour, S., Ichida, Y., Fujino, Y., Satoh, T., & Shibuya, K. (2012). Trends in cause specific mortality across occupations in Japanese men of working age during period of economic stagnation, 1980-2005: retrospective cohort study. BMJ: British Medical Journal, (7851). 18.
WIJSBEK, H. (2012). ‘TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE’: ON THE LOSS OF INTEGRITY AS A KIND OF SUFFERING. Bioethics, 26(1), 1-7. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8519.2010.01801.x