First World Problems | Issue 21


New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates among the OECD countries. This is a startling statistic when you compare it with other figures that paint New Zealand in nothing but a favourable light. High life expectancy, literacy rates, physicians per 1000. By all accounts, New Zealanders have it pretty good. So what gives?

We often assume that suicide is a consequence of bad circumstances in a person’s life. That one’s life must be irreversibly bad for one to consider suicide as an option. This would be viewed “rational behaviour”. In economics, rational players make decisions based on cost-benefit. If the “cost” of living was greater than the benefit of living, then rationally one should stop living. This is why economists have a bad reputation for being cold, amoral, and heartless. So why do so many first world countries such as New Zealand, Korea, Japan, and the United States have suicide rates higher than that of many third world countries like Syria, Libya and Iraq.

This trend can be explained through looking at absolute vs relative poverty and applying this idea to happiness. Absolute poverty is when one lives below a poverty line. It is when people can’t afford proper housing or enough food for the family. Absolute poverty is found in almost all countries, but in third world countries in particular. Relative poverty occurs when a person doesn’t make enough income to maintain the average living standard in the country. We see this as a common feature of first world countries. Not everyone can afford a Mercedes Benz.

Now apply this principle to happiness. When the population on the whole lives in bad conditions, people tend to blame external factors on their circumstances. It’s not their fault their country is in a civil war or that it's run by corrupt politicians. Contrast this with first world countries. When a person is surrounded by successful and happy people, then that person is more likely to blame intrinsic factors for their circumstances. In other words, people living in developed nations are more likely blame themselves and their own lack of ability for any shortcomings in their life. 

Suicide is still a topic that needs to be thoroughly researched and understood to better aid those at risk. These trends in the data exist and finding the underlying principles may bring us a step closer to effectively tackling the problem.

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2016.
Posted 12:26pm Sunday 4th September 2016 by Danielle Pintacasi.