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Does misery really love company?
An intriguing new study that found some notoriously happy places like Utah also have the highest suicide rates suggests that may be the case.
"Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life," suggested one of the study's authors, Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England.
Or, put another way by co-author Stephen Wu of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., those surrounded by unhappy people may not feel so bad for themselves.
Utah has long scored high in measures of well-being but has also had high rates of depression and suicide. It's a dissonance that has baffled researchers, who have drawn connections to the state's religiosity and culture of self-reliance.
One University of Utah study has even pointed to living at high altitudes as a risk factor for suicide.
This latest study, accepted for publication in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, takes a broader view, looking at regional variances in Americans' sense of well-being and comparing those findings with suicide rates.
It lists the top 10 states for well-being as Utah, Louisiana, Colorado, Minnesota, Wyoming, Hawaii, Arizona, Delaware, Florida and Nevada.
Four of those states also are in the top 10 for suicide rates, with Nevada ranked 3rd, Wyoming, 5th; Colorado, 6th; and Utah, 9th.
Scientists have for some time explored the why's of high suicide rates in the western United States, blaming them on biological and cultural influences, rural isolation and easy access to guns.
"I don't think we've nailed that one yet," said Cameron John, a psychologist and associate professor at Utah Valley University in Orem.
John's own research looked at the influence of religion on depression, specifically people's interpretation of their religious experience.
"We found when religious affiliation is important to people but they don't feel connected, that can be a risk factor for depression," John said. "Conversely, if religion is important to them and they do feel connected, that can be a protective factor."
John and a colleague also looked at the role of "toxic perfectionism."
Perfectionism can be a good thing, and highly motivating, explained John. "But it can get out of control. A person, for example, can set 10 goals and reach nine and get hung up on the one they didn't finish instead of recognizing all the good they did manage to do."
According to the new study, the 10 states with the lowest well-being ratings are: Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Michigan and Rhode Island.
Just one of those states, West Virginia, is among the top 10 for suicides, ranking No. 8. The only other state in the top 20 was Kentucky at 16th.
Wu urged caution in drawing conclusions, saying: "I don't think that means if you are unhappy you should be around others who are unhappy."
Wu also noted that international studies have found that Scandinavian countries also display high satisfaction levels and high suicide rates. But the researchers said that because of variations in culture and suicide-reporting systems, it's hard to make comparisons from one country to another.
To develop their data, Wu and colleagues used information collected by the federal government in the Behavioral Risk-Factor Surveillance System, a monthly survey designed to gather health data and identify emerging problems.
One survey question asks people how satisfied they are with their lives, and the responses to that from people aged 18 to 85 formed the basis for the well-being assessment.
The survey interviews more than 350,000 people each year.
The suicide rankings are based on mortality data reported by the Census Bureau in 2008.
Tribune reporter Kirsten Stewart contributed to this report. Ala. • 26/37
Alaska • 1/26
Ariz. • 11/7
Ark. • 20/31
Calif. • 42/41
Colo. • 6/3
Conn. • 45/29
Del. • 34/8
D.C. • 51/21
Fla. • 15/9
Ga. • 36/18
Hawaii • 43/6
Idaho • 7/17
Ill. • 46/33
Ind. • 33/48
Iowa • 28/22
Kan. • 17/20
Ky. • 16/51
La. • 27/ 2
Maine • 21/19
Md. • 44/13
Mass. • 49/44
Mich. • 37/43
Minn. • 38/4
Miss. • 23/39
Mo. • 22/47
Mont. • 2/14
Neb. • 41/34
Nev. • 3/10
N.H. • 39/38
N.J. • 48/35
N.M. • 4/ 32
N.Y. • 50/45
N.C. • 24/27
N.D. • 31/ 23
Ohio • 29/46
Okla. • 14/40
Ore. • 10/28
Pa. • 32/49
R.I. • 47/42
S.C. • 30/15
S.D. • 13/25
Tenn. • 18/30
Texas • 40/16
Utah • 9/1
Vt. • 12/12
Va. • 35/11
Wash. • 19/24
W.Va. • 8/50
Wis. • 25/36
Wyo. • 5/5
Source • "Dark Contrasts: The Paradox of High Rates of Suicide in Happy Places," scheduled for publication in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
On the Web
• Behavioral Risk-Factor Surveillance System • cdc.gov/brfss
• Census Bureau • census.gov