In a grim bit of news, it turns out that being around happy people can make unhappy people feel even worse. As reported by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times — “Happiest Places Post Highest Suicide Rates” — places like Denmark and Sweden score high on measures of happiness and life satisfaction but also have some of the highest rates of suicide. Researchers intrigued by this paradox have found an overall correlation for very happy places and high suicide rates.
Parker-Pope quotes one of the researchers, Stephen Wu, associate professor of economics at Hamilton College: “Perhaps for those at the bottom end, in a way their situation may seem worse in relative terms, when compared with people who are close to them or their neighbors…For someone who is quite unhappy, the relative comparison may lead to more unhappiness and depression.”
Being suicidal is obviously an extreme case, but even for the lightly miserable I can see how relative comparisons matter, as does commiseration. Hearing about how well things are going for everyone else can make you feel pretty awful and even more uniquely loser-ish. If you just broke up with your terrible boyfriend, it can be tough to listen to a friend’s anecdotes about her blissfully puppy-dog love. If you lost your job, hearing tales of your friend’s big promotion or serious raise might not help. And while it might not be productive, knowing someone else who has also lost a job or broken up with a dirtbag, and who’s able to identify with even the smallest details of those experiences, can make you feel better (or at least understood) in the short term.
I have only recently noticed how the incredibly chipper can dampen my mood. I’ll think I’m feeling fine and relatively content about what’s going on, and then someone shows up who is so incredibly, annoyingly positive about everything that I feel compelled to start pointing out flaws and downsides. Where does this reaction come from? I have no idea. Maybe it’s my contrarian streak. But regardless, there’s no doubt that the moods and circumstances of others affect how we feel.