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The Paper-Clip Game: Sad People in Happy Places

You know that old technique for measuring creativity, where you’re supposed to come up with as many uses for a paper clip as you can?

I like to play a version of that game when I see interesting research. I’ve been puzzling over  the new research about how the happiest places in the United States have the highest suicide rates.

Curious, eh?

The researchers speculate that this is because we all tend to compare ourselves with others, and people who are unhappy find scant comfort in comparing themselves with others if everyone is having a grand time but them. In other word, being unhappy in a happy place makes unhappy people unhappier.

That’s feasible. But just for fun, let’s brainstorm some others possible reasons for this surprising finding.

New York is one of the places where people are kind of unhappy (45th in life satisfaction) with one of the lowest suicide rates. Perhaps recreational bitching and moaning works for New Yorkers (the city dwellers, anyway). They blow off steam, they commiserate, they feel better. Maybe misery really does love company.

Utah, on the other hand, ranks number one in life satisfaction, but ninth in suicide rates. The researchers adjusted for age, gender, race, education, income, marital status and employment status. But perhaps religious homogeneity in Utah (57 percent Mormon) is stressful for people with different beliefs. Or for people who want to leave the religion. Or maybe a devout culture doesn’t encourage treatment for depression, beyond praying, which I’m sure works for some people, but not for everyone.

Perhaps people who are unhappy move to happy places to try and cheer up, and then find that they’re no more happy when they do, which makes them unhappier yet. Hawaii is high in life satisfaction, with a high suicide rate. Or maybe living on an island is stressful. Or maybe it’s the tension between the indigenous population and the European-Americans and tourists they feel co-opted their paradise.

New Jersey is low on life satisfaction, and has a suicide rate. Nobody thinks moving to New Jersey will cheer them up. They’re there and resigned. (I’m sorry. I’m a native New Yorker. We’re rude to New Jersey. I think it might be genetic.)

Or maybe places that come across as high in life satisfaction are not actually happier than other places, but have cultures that discourage complaining. For example, one doesn’t gripe in polite Southern society.

I wonder if percentage of small towns vs. cities in the states makes a difference. As a big-city dweller, I would have trouble adjusting to a small town, where everybody knows your business, and where nonconformity might be considered suspect. I actually like the anonymity of big cities. Plus, cities provide a larger pool of potential friends and lovers.

This finding is counterintuitive, which makes the paper-clip game particularly interesting. Got any other ideas about what’s going on here?

Photo by Phil W. Shirley via Flickr (Creative Commons).

The Paper-Clip Game: Sad People in Happy Places

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). The Paper-Clip Game: Sad People in Happy Places. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Apr 2011
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