Unhappy Is OK

Many happy countries have unusually high rates of suicide. … U.S. states … with people who are generally more satisfied with their lives tended to have higher suicide rates than those with lower average levels of life satisfaction. … Adjusting for clear population differences between the states including age, gender, race, education, income, marital status and employment status … still produced a very strong correlation. …

“Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life.” … “This result is consistent with other research that shows that people judge their well-being in comparison to others around them.” (more)

While it is good to be happy, be aware that your happiness comes a cost: it makes those around you feel worse by comparison. So please, only act happy if you actually are happy. It is hard to see how your gains from pretending to be happy could outweigh its harm on others. Yes, maybe pretending to be happy makes you a little bit more happy.  But, really, it is ok and probably best to act unhappy if that is how you feel.

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  • That’s interesting. Also heard that suicide rate drops in wartime. Aren’t we contrary?

    • Oliver Beatson

      They probably want to know how it ends.

    • According to Thomas Joiner’s model of the causes of suicide, suicide occurs when three conditions occur: (a) lack of belonging, (b) feelings of burdensomeness, and (c) “competence” (being able to actually go through with it).

      Wartime might increase feelings of belonging and reduce feelings of burdensomeness, if we’re on the WWII model and everybody’s pulling together for the big win. Of course, it also increases “competence” – vets kill themselves in part because they know how to use, have used, and have access to guns.

  • The same externality applies for acting confident when you don’t feel it – it brings you private benefits and creates negative externalities (everyone else must engage in fakery or lose status).

    Nobody seems to take social externalities seriously, especially in an age when “judgmental” social norms are a laughingstock.

    • Great point. The distribution of rent-seeking confidence fakery concerns me too.

      In general, negative externalities of publishing (I include all media including speaking) hasn’t been looked at comprehensively, yet, by competent empiricists. We have people claiming violence on tv and porn causes negative externalities, but discussion hasn’t extended rigorously to everything on tv, on the internet, and in microsocial discourse.

      This might fit into Prof. Hanson’s “Information Economics” -I’m less interested into an ideological entrypoint or posture and more in quant empirical analysis.

  • Rowz

    Am I the only one who finds the “I’m upset by your happiness” reaction to be reprehensible? In my view, we should file this with other-regarding preferences like racism and completely disregard it, or better yet take actions that make these odious people even more upset.

    • GVChamp

      Racists are people, too.

    • Captain Oblivious

      I don’t think it’s “I’m upset by your happiness” as much as “I’m depressed because my happiness is so low compared to how happy everyone around me seems to be”. No one is suggesting that other people should be less happy; I think they’re just noting that pretending to be happy (in order to fit in, etc) does impose a “cost” on others.

      Whether this “cost” is sufficient to justify changing our behavior is a completely separate question – and one which pretty much has to be a subjective, personal, decision. After all, it’s not like “pretending to be happier than you really are” could be a crime – or even a socially-disapproved-of state of mind.

  • Pingback: Unhappy Is OK « Daniel Smith()

  • Sophronius

    Acting happy doesn’t make others around you less happy. It makes them more happy, generally. However, it changes their standards for happiness so that they may report their happiness to be lower than they otherwise would, which is not at all the same thing.

    I have always considered happiness to be contagious, except when it is blatantly cheesy. I have never heard of the opposite being the case.

    • Dog of Justice

      This rings true to me. (I certainly wouldn’t want a romantic partner to make a point of acting unhappy all the time!)

    • I think happiness makes surrounding people happier if they can match it. If they are sufficiently sad/angry/depressed that they can’t get into sync with happiness, then being around happy people can amplify the negative emotions.

  • acertainshadeofgreen

    Many factors contribute to suicide rate, and many factors contribute to how happy a population of people is.

    Do you actually think that the happiness of a country is having a causal positive effect on suicide rate? Even if they controlled for some usual-suspect variables, doesn’t it seem likely that this is a spurious correlation?

    Also, as Sophronius said, happiness (and unhappiness) are “contagious,” though I couldn’t point you to the research off the top of my head. I think it is probably also the case that there is some social comparison going on, which can make unhappy people unhappier when they are surrounded by happy people (i.e. both of these phenomena occur under different circumstances). It’s an open question whether “acting happy” will make the particular people you surround yourself with happier or less happy.

  • Oliver Beatson

    I’d have thought ‘acting happily’ would be less the cause, than ‘flaunting prosperity’. People taking pains to signal that their standards of living are greater than average, while not showing signs of appreciating this, seems at a first glance a more likely cause of depressive feelings in others, and would seem to happen more in higher-suicide rich countries. Whereas happy poor people probably make you less upset about your own life on net, as in ‘less happy’ LEDCs, which probably registered the lower suicide rates in this study.

    This is all just gut responses though, no significant confidence attached to these explanations.

  • Matt

    Is that successful suicides or suicide attempts?

    • Matt, the correct term is completed suicides.

      • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the term “successful suicide.” The only reason to substitute a euphemism for the plain-spoken term is to dehumanize the suicide and deny him agency, promoting the medical model of suicide.

  • Yvain

    Related: Facebook may make people unhappy because they compare their own lives to those of their friends, who usually post to Facebook about their parties and escapades and other things that give an inflated estimate of how happy they are.

  • Pseu

    Or, perhaps (perhaps instead, perhaps in addition), measurements of “happiness” don’t really measure anything, or at least don’t measure what one might think they measure.

  • Rob
  • I wouldn’t put too much credibility on this report. They first fitted the suicide data and happiness data to a model that included age, race, gender, education, income, marital status, and employment/labor-force status and then compared the fitted suicide data to their fitted happiness data.


    On the other hand, if you look at the 9 lowest suicide rates, those 9 states voted majority Democratic (in 2006 congressional elections). Maybe it is only Republicans that are made suicidal by seeing other people being happy. That would explain a lot. 😉

    • There’s some data to back that up . . . (Republican neighborhoods = more suicide attempts in youth)

  • richard silliker

    There seems to be a paradox here with what I have read. Something is missing and I feel it does not have anything to do with happiness or the lack of.

    Look for something simpler.

  • Tom

    This is perfectly consonant with, and exactly what you would expect from, Roy Baumeister’s explanation of why people commit suicide, which seemed quite plausible to me.

  • Matt

    Robin, I thought your thing was signaling? Happy people often have reason to be happy, mainly because they are enjoying the fruits of all their good qualities (beauty, health, wealth, sociability). So pretending to be happy is a way of tricking others into thinking you may have the same qualities as all those actually happy people. That’s mainly why people do it.

    Would you then agree with this slight modification of your moral prescription: “So please, only [signal good qualities] if you actually [have them]. It is hard to see how your gains from [signaling] could outweigh its harm on others.”

    Also, as others have said, happiness, like laughter, is contagious and only increases the happiness of (most) people in the area.

    And finally, happiness is mainly a state of mind so pretending to be happy may lead to some increase in real happiness. It is hard to see why this increase is less in magnitude and/or morally inferior to the increased sadness of resentful witnesses.

  • Nate

    Asking people if they are generally happy is like asking people if they are generally hungry, or generally have to take a piss. If they respond positively, it is an honest portrayal of their state of mind at the moment of the survey, but not much else.

    Happiness is falsely portrayed as a permanent state, when it in fact fluctuates constantly. Even depressed people have times when they are happy. The most successful people in the world have periods where they are not particularly happy.

    Happiness itself provides no clear advantage in the game of natural selection, but internal promises of future happiness certainly do. The pursuit of happiness motivates us to act, and it motivates us to act in ways that are beneficial to our genes. It matters very little whether that happiness is all we hoped it would be.

    In order to get meat machines to act in their genes’ interests, the meat machines need to be motivated to constantly pursue some promise of happiness like a carrot on a stick.

  • Ben

    Oddly, today Philosophy bites posted: Pascal Bruckner on Happiness

  • If acting happy has a cost to others, why is it ok to do it when you are happy? If there are compensating effects, like the desire to seem happy, or the value of others having accurate information about you, what’s to say these come out together at near honesty?

  • Daublin

    I trust the suicide rates more than self-reported happiness. Self-reported feelings aren’t as reliable as the way people act with their feet.

    I’m not convinced that people in self-reportedly-happy countries are all that happy. As a thought experiment, imagine life for people who lived in a real-life version of the Brady Bunch. They’d be socially pressured to act happy all the time. However, inwardly, they’d probably be rather morose.

  • Axa

    i’m surprised, this very precise concept was treated by Chesterton in one the Father Brown short stories. how personal hapiness can make other people miserable. The storie is called the “the three tools of death”