Among the many, many things that irritate me about The Huffington Post is the fact that it insists on finding new ways to tell us which countries offer the best "quality of life."
Why does this irritate me? First, because it's stupid. I know people who would be happy anywhere, and people who couldn't have a good time if someone handed them a lamp with a genie in it. And let's face it: for a statistically significant number of people, what's desirable is simply what they don't have. Even when you get beyond those for whom a "better quality of life" would mean something as simple as "enough to eat," there's still the ever-present discontent with what's at hand. Many Swedes, for example, would like to live somewhere with palm trees, and lots of Peruvians would probably like to try a few hours at sea level.
Second, the winner always seems to be Liechtenstein or some other off-brand country you need spellcheck for, some place with mountains. Mountains are good for falling past, good for collecting (ughhh) snow in the winter, good for passes that funnel icy winds down on perfectly nice people, good for yodeling and lederhosen and goats. But to live with? Please.
All these intangibles aside, it seems to me that one index of how much people in a given country actually enjoy their quality of life might be how often they end it by their own hand. It's hard to come by statistics about what percentage of people living somewhere wished they lived somewhere else. Hard to identify a threshold - does a mild longing qualify? A frequent flip through National Geographic? The occasional semi-erotic daydream?
Suicide, on the other hand, has a clear threshold. So I asked myself, which countries have the highest and the lowest suicide rates? Surely those with the highest incidence of citizens offing themselves have to acknowledge a certain malaise. This being the age of the Internet, here's what I learned.
The nation with the highest suicide rate in the world (in 2010) was South Korea. (Numbers are not available for North Korea.) This is generally attributed to the rapid rate of economic and social change in Korea and the personal and professional pressures South Koreans impose upon themselves. Alcohol use, which is pretty liberal, may also be a contributing factor.
Twelve of the twenty countries with the highest suicide rates -- Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Hungary, Russia, Latvia, Slovenia Ukraine, Serbia/Montenegro, Croatia, and Moldova -- were previously members of the Worker's Paradise of the Soviet Union. So that's yet another reason to be thankful to Communism; it left behind an environment to which death is preferable. Can there still be anyone who feels that Soviet-style Communism was a good thing? As Orwell recognized way back in 1945, some pigs were much more equal than others.
Japan, where suicide is, so to speak, a way of life, is seventh. (By the way, seventh place translates into 23.8 suicides per 100,000 people.) Temperature seems to be a relevant factor; Guyana and Sri Lanka are the only tropical countries in the top 20, and, in fact, colder countries--sorry, Yrsa--generally seem to have more suicides. (A lot of them have mountains, too.) This phenomenon is especially striking in view of the fact that all five of the countries with point zero (.0) suicides in the most recent reporting year are in, or on, the Caribbean.
Surprises? Some countries I tend to think of as miserable -- Iran, for example -- are pretty low on the index. The United States, at number 41, has fewer suicides than Switzerland, France, Austria, Sweden, Canada (!), Portugal, and Norway, but more than Australia, Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, to name a few.
Across the board, no matter where they are, men are much more likely to kill themselves than women -- often ten times more likely, more usually four to five times. (The sole country in which there were more female than male suicides is Sao Tome/Principe in western Central Africa, but the numbers are so low it may be a one-year anomaly.) Beyond Sao Tome/Principe, the exceptions are rare: the numbers are almost even in Tajikistan; three quarters as many women as men kill themselves in India; more than half as many women as men in Kuwait, Singapore, and the Philippines; and a little less than half as many women in Turkey and Hong Kong, and a few other places.
Among the countries in which the writers on this blog set our books, France, at #21, has the most suicides per capita, all those great pastries notwithstanding. (France probably has the most existentialists of anywhere on the planet, too, and there may be a connection.) Iceland is second, at #38, Land-of-Smiles Thailand is third at 62, the United Kingdom is fourth at number 61, followed by Brazil (70) and Greece (84, and Jeffrey clearly has the right idea).
No numbers are available for Botswana, but South Africa is #23.
I have no idea what any of this proves and would be thrilled to get some suggestions. It's one of those topics that seems interesting on the face of it, but when you get down to the final paragraph, there's no conclusion. Yet another reason for me to learn to outline.
Anyway, keep living. You never know when you might meet someone.