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9/16/18blog post

deaths of dispair

Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton labeled them “deaths of despair,” the increasing likelihood of people dying by suicide, drug use, and alcohol. One study documented a 51 percent increase in such deaths between 2005 and 2016. This trend may account for the fact that the life expectancy of Americans has decreased two years in a row and continues to be trending downward. 

We are acting in self-destructive ways resulting in disabilities and death. Why?

It makes sense to look at social factors, and economists Case and Deaton focused on the increased deaths of despair among middle-aged whites without a college degree. There can be a sense of helplessness that develops when you reach a point in your life when you realize you’ll never achieve your dreams, and your life is worse than your parents and others around you. Without a social network of support, you seek relief from this psychic pain by drinking or drugs.

However, this despair trend is more widespread and not confined to one ethnic or economic group. With an abundance of wealth, free time, and endless opportunities (which are not equally distributed among our citizens), why is there an increase in this level of self-destructive behavior?

When we interview youngsters who have attempted suicide, we often ask them why they wanted to die. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we should ask “why do you want to live?”

We have an answer to that question from research on people who report a high level of satisfaction with their lives. Their answers are remarkedly consistent about the causes of their happiness.

  1. Live a meaningful life. Happy people are not always the most accomplished or successful, but they do things that matter. They make a difference, sometimes in very modest ways. The significance of their lives comes from their perception that their existence is important, if only to family and perhaps a few close friends.
  2. Establish real relationships.The sense of loving others and being loved by them is the foundation of living a life without despair. Happy people haven’t stumbled across these relationships, but rather work at them. They have figured out a way to resolve conflicts, be genuine, communicate feelings, share ideas, and enjoy the company of others.
  3. Show gratitude. The best way to avoid despair is to develop an appreciation for what you have, rather than a longing for what you don’t.

The next time you get frustrated by some minor misbehavior from your child, think about what’s important.  Focusing on what matters may help your kids avoid death by despair.