Sunday, January 29, 2012

Quality of Life?

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.

Tim -- Sunday

Something lighter next week, I promise.


  1. Tim,

    I saw your comment on my blog and decided to check out yours. What an awesome blog! And a great post. I've lived in a few different countries, and I agree that the quality-of-life index makes little, if any, sense. Your statistics are fascinating. Thank you for sharing. Thailand? And you write other things besides blogs, I assume. I'd love to read more. =)

  2. Rebecca, lest Tim think of offing himself at your question, yes he does "write other things beside blogs." :)

    By the way, Tim, you do know that Arianna Huffington is Greek...though undoubtedly an outliner...which probably raises her risk level considerably.

    Go 84.

  3. I think it matters less where someone lives and more about a person's support system. Family ties and religious affiliation likely play a significant role in an individual's optimism and view of the future.

    As to the other things Tim writes, there are the six books in the Simeon Grist series, the four books in the Poke Rafferty series which is set in Thailand, and the two ebooks in the Junior Bender series. THE QUEEN OF PATPONG was a finalist for the Edgar Award and the Macavity Award. ( I love to grab every opportunity that comes up to mention authors in case someone Googles a name. Be tolaboring the obvious in leading them to Murder Is Everywhere is a service I like to provide just in case someone REALLY doesn't know what Tim writes). I have to use my blog to remind people, again, about all the authors who contribute to Murder Is Everywhere.

  4. Interesting thoughts, Tim!

    Re: Huffington Post, the thing that irritates me the most (other than all the silly "entertainment" stories) is that I like to read the 'wire', which gives me a hodge-podge of stories from all kinds of areas, except that there doesn't seem to be ANY way to filter it. It's a hodge-podge of stories from everywhere and about everything, and I really have NO interest in stories from Quebec (as I don't speak or read French), there's WAY too many stories about Canada in general (a few occasionally, fine, but since Chicago is close to Canada, they seem to think that it's almost PART of Canada, and since THEY'RE interested in stories about Canada and Canadian politicians and such, wouldn't EVERYONE be???) and I have pretty much zero interest in all the sports stories.

    So, my options seem to be:
    1) Put up with it.
    2) Find some other news feed (I do read news from three or four other sites, just to get a good cross-exposure to different things).
    3) Read each of the sections (Politics, US, Entertainment, Sports, et-bloody-cetera) that I'm interested in (what a time-wasting PITA).

    It's not that hard to all each browser to have a 'preferences' setting for which topics to stream to them (Google news works GREAT for this).

    But Huff Post doesn't seem to even make it easy to send them suggestions or feedback.

    Eventually I may have to drop the site if they keep being more and more irritating.

  5. I may be off base, but I seem to remember that psychologists often talk about the amount of light and warmth that people experience tied to the suicide rate. Also the amount of autonomy a person experiences adds to the quality of life, and lessens despair. Mountains are fun to walk on, to ski on, and are beautiful to look at. I bet that the folks who get out in nature will often feel better, and that is easier to do in the Caribbean. This is actually a fascinating, if a little dark, subject, and affected by more factors, I think.

  6. Hi, everyone, and thanks for the comments.

    Rebecca, I just left a long admiring comment on one of your blogs, and I want to say that I'm pretty much in awe of you, which should be obvious from my comment. Yes, I write other things, mostly novels.

    Jeffrey, Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington is indeed Greek, but not a particularly Appolonian Greek in my opinion. I distrust women whose hair look like you could break a Coke bottle on it without ever touching her head. And HuffPo usually manages to piss me off, although that doesn't keep me from bookmarking it.

    Beth, thank you for all the plugs, and you've just won an ARC of THE FEAR ARTIST, Poke #5. I won't have them for a couple of months, but you're on the list. And I agree about the various influencing factors re: suicide, but I just thought it was interesting to see that the practice is SO much more prevalent in some countries than others (and these rankings tend to hold, with a few minor shifts, from year to year). Actually, it was either this topic or a fascinating piece about the relationship between parental sexual permissiveness with teenage children and the teenage pregnancy/illegitimacy/STD rates, which is really, really eye-opening, at least as far as Western countries are concerned. Maybe I'll do that over at my other blog.

    Everett, HuffPo seems to be organized at random, with a few exceptions: the latest outrage committed by a conservative politician will be up front; there will always be at least two tabloid stories (WOMAN MICROWAVES HUSBAND -- JUSTIFIED OR NOT?), and Angelina Jolie will be on the front page six days a week. They also have an inexplicable fascination with Jennifer Aniston (JEN'S SEXY NEW DRESS!) although I thought her sell-by date was long past.

    Lil -- Yes, that whole length-of-sunlight thing, which I thought would have something to do with it, too, and apparently does. Interesting that some countries I sort of associate with despair -- Sweden, for example, thanks in part to Ingmar Bergman -- aren't very high on the list at all. But it certainly seems like the Caribbean is the place to avoid suicide. And remember, so far as we know, no one killed him/herself in the Garden of Eden.