Social Indicators Research

, Volume 81, Issue 3, pp 455-496

First online:

Well-Being and Social Capital: Does Suicide Pose a Puzzle?

  • John F. HelliwellAffiliated withDepartment of Economics, University of British Columbia Email author 

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This paper has a double purpose: to see how well Durkheim’s [1897, Le Suicide (Paris: 1e edition)] findings apply a century later, and to see if the beneficial effects of social capital on suicide prevention are parallel to those already found for subjective well-being (Helliwell 2003, Economic Modelling 20(2), pp. 331–360). The results show that more social capital and higher levels of trust are associated with lower national suicide rates, just as they are associated with higher levels of subjective well-being. Furthermore, there is a strong negative correlation between national average suicide rates and measures of life satisfaction. Thus social capital does appear to improve well-being, whether measured by higher average values of life satisfaction or by lower average suicide rates. There is a slight asymmetry, since the very high Scandinavian measures of subjective well-being are not matched by equally low suicide rates. To take the Swedish case as an example, this asymmetry is explained by Sweden having particularly high values of variables that have more weight in explaining life satisfaction than suicide (especially quality of government), and less beneficial values of variables that have more influence in explaining suicide rates (Swedes have low belief in God and high divorce rates), because with the latest data and models the Swedish data fit the well-being and suicide equations with only tiny errors. If the international suicide data pose a puzzle, it is more because suicide rates, and their estimated equations, differ greatly by gender, while life satisfaction and its explanations are similar for men and women.

Key words

determinants of suicide gender differences in suicide good government international comparisons of suicide international comparisons of well-being life satisfaction social capital subjective well-being suicide as a measure of well-being suicide as a social indicator