Why Suicides Are More Common in Richer Neighborhoods

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Happiness is directly related to how much money we make. We’ve known that for a while. So it shouldn’t be surprising that our earnings also correlate with suicide rates.

A new paper from the San Francisco Federal Reserve shows that, all else being equal, suicide risks are higher in wealthier neighborhoods, a morbid demonstration of the folly of trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

Daniel Wilson, senior economist at the San Francisco Fed, and two co-authors found that for two individuals with the same income but living in two different counties, the one who lives in the county with a higher average income is 4.5% more likely to commit suicide. At first it might seem surprising, but it begins to make sense when you think about how we tend to compare ourselves to those around us.

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You might assume that suicide rates would be elevated in lower-income neighborhoods and counties, and the study’s authors do point to findings that higher income generally lowers suicide risk. For example, an individual with family income less than $10,000 (in 1990 dollars) is 50% more likely to commit suicide than an individual with income above $60,000.

The twist comes when you look at low income individuals who live in high income areas. According to the study, they face greater suicide risk than those living in low-income areas. The study’s authors call it a “behavioral response to unfavorable interpersonal income comparisons.”

The study’s co-authors analyzed two independent sets of data to come up with their findings: the National Longitudinal Morality Study and the National Center for Health Statistics’ Multiple Cause of Death Files combined with information from the 1990 census.

Not surprisingly, being unemployed is also a factor in suicide risk. The Fed study found that suicide risk for the unemployed is 72% higher than for someone who is working.

Previous studies have found that $75,000 is the earnings tipping point in terms of happiness: Anything above that mark has no long-term effect on happiness, but each dollar below the $75,000 figure decreases happiness.

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The Fed study has discovered a new benchmark: $34,000. Make anything less than that and your risk of suicide increases by 50%; but raise your income from $34,000 to as high as $102,000 and suicide rates decrease only marginally.

Unfortunately, our self-reported happiness levels are largely based on comparisons with others — and proximity to more successful people makes us view our own situation negatively. The easiest way to solve this? Try to forget about what’s happening on the other side of the fence. It’s not always greener.