Something Rotten in Denmark

The lack of belief that our lives are meaningful is spiking suicide rates in wealthy First World countries whose citizens say they’re generally happy with their lives.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”
Marcellus, Hamlet Act I Scene 4

Last time, we considered some of the findings of a huge international survey of money, happiness, wealth, and meaning conducted by Gallup and a couple University of Virginia professors. Digging deeper:

“One of the most disturbing findings involved suicide rates. Wealthier nations, it turns out, had significantly higher suicide rates than poorer ones. For example, the suicide rate of Japan, where per-capita GDP was $34,000, was more than twice as high as that of Sierra Leone, where per-capita GDP was $400.

“The strange relationship between happiness and suicide has been confirmed in other research, too. Happy countries like Denmark and Finland also have high rates of suicide.

“[The survey authors revealed] a striking trend: happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning—or, more precisely, the lack of it. The countries with the lowest rates of meaning, like Japan, also had some of the highest suicide rates.”

From The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith (2017)

The Power of Meaning cites further data showing that:

  • Suicide rates are generally higher in wealthier countries than in poorer ones.
  • According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased 60% since World War II.
  • In 2016, worldwide suicide rates were the highest in 30 years.
  • In the U.S., suicide among 15-24 year-olds tripled from 1950-2000.
  • Among the middle-aged, suicide rates have increased by over 40% since the turn of the 21st century.

The lack of belief that our lives are meaningful is spiking suicide rates — especially in wealthy First World countries whose citizens say they’re generally happy with their lives. The 2017 World Happiness Report confirmed these findings:  Denmark ranked #2 in the list of happiest countries, and Finland was #5, yet both countries had high rates of suicide.

The World Happiness Report is no lightweight exercise in psychobabble — it is generated on the highest level of worldwide policy making. This is how it describes its origins:

HR17_3_cover_small-232x300The first World Happiness Report was published in April, 2012, in support of the UN High Level Meeting on happiness and well-being. Since then the world has come a long way. Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy. In June 2016 the OECD committed itself “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts.” In February 2017, the United Arab Emirates held a full-day World Happiness meeting, as part of the World Government Summit. Now on World Happiness Day, March 20th, we launch the World Happiness Report 2017, once again back at the United Nations, again published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and now supported by a generous three-year grant from the Ernesto Illy Foundation.

The Report is long and packed with statistical analysis, tables, graphs, and other data-nerd content, but if you’re game for it, it makes for fascinating reading.

Both the UVA/Gallup survey and the World Happiness Report revealed that dissatisfaction with work is a key contributor to the feeling that life lacks meaning, and to the escalating suicide rate.

Imagine how different the legal profession would be if it sought to promote not just the happiness of its members (that would be radical enough!) but also a sense of meaningfulness about working in the law.

We’ll be talking more about that.

For a summary of the UVA/Gallup study, see ScienceDaily, 18 December 2013:  “Residents of poorer nations find greater meaning in life.” For the original study, see S. Oishi, E. Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science, 2013. You can request a reprint here.

Money, Happiness, Wealth, and Meaning

The ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to one vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

One reason money doesn’t make us happy is the stress of making it. The following is from Plutocrats:  The Rise of the new Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland (2012):

plutocrats“Until a few years ago, the reigning theory about money and happiness was the Easterlin paradox, the 1974 finding by Richard Easterlin that, beyond a relatively low threshold more money didn’t make you happier.

“But across countries, what millions of immigrants have always known to be true really is:  the people of rich countries are generally happier than the people of poor countries.

“The latest contrarian finding, however, is that moving to that state of greater wealth and greater happiness is decidedly unpleasant. As Angus Deaton, in a review of the 2006 Gallup World Poll, concluded, ‘Surprisingly, at any given level of income, economic growth is associated with lower reported levels of life satisfaction.’”

Freeland also cites Angus Deaton for showing that “the richer you are, the more covetous you become” — not a likely prescription for happiness.

A 2014 U of Virginia/ Gallup study weighed in with similar findings — Emily Esfahani Smith discussed them in The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life That Matters, (2017:

power of meaning“Though the study was enormous, involving nearly 140,000 people across 132 countries, it was also straightforward. A few years earlier, researchers from Gallup had asked respondents whether they were satisfied with their lives, and whether they felt their lives had an important purpose or meaning. [Prof. Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Ed Diener of Gallup] analyzed that data by country, correlating the levels of happiness and meaning with variables like wealth, rates of suicides, and other social factors.

“Their findings were surprising. People in wealthier regions, like Scandinavia, reported being happier than those in poorer ones, like sub-Saharan Africa. But when it came to meaning, it was a different story. Wealthy places like France and Hong Kong had some of the lowest levels of meaning, while the poor nations of Togo and Niger had among the highest, even though people living there were some of the unhappiest in the study.

I.e., the ultimate wellbeing culprit is neither money nor the pursuit of it, but whether or not you believe your life has meaning and purpose. And according to this vast, worldwide survey, the residents of wealthy countries rate their lives as less meaningful than those in poor countries.

Analogizing from these findings to the legal profession, we would expect that, because the legal profession runs on the higher side of financial wellbeing, lawyers would report higher levels of happiness than less well-paid workers, but would also suffer from meaning malaise. And, since one of the wellbeing factors used in the survey was rates of suicide, we would also expect lawyers to have a correspondingly higher rate of suicide.

The high lawyer suicide rate (third highest among professionals, after doctors and dentists) has been well documented, and as we’ve been seeing, lawyers as a whole aren’t generally happy with their lives either, despite their profession’s higher rate of wealth.

We’ll look more into the meaning part of the equation next time.

Richard Easterlin is a professor of economics at USC. Sir Angus Stewart Deaton, FBA, is a British American economist and professor at Princeton. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.

For a summary of the UVA/Gallup study, see ScienceDaily, 18 December 2013:  “Residents of poorer nations find greater meaning in life.” For the original study, see S. Oishi, E. Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science, 2013