Relative Status and Well-Being: Evidence from U.S. Suicide Deaths

2007-12 | July 1, 2010

This paper assesses the importance of interpersonal income comparisons using individual level data on suicide deaths. Our analysis considers whether suicide risk is systematically related to the income of others, holding own income and other individual and environmental factors fixed. We estimate proportional hazards and probit models of the suicide hazard using two separate and independent data sets: (1) the National Longitudinal Mortality Study and (2) the National Center for Health Statistics’ Mortality Detail Files combined with the 5 percent Public Use Micro Sample of the 1990 decennial census. Results from both data sources show that, controlling for own income and individual characteristics, individual suicide risk rises with reference group income. This result holds for reference groups defined either by county or more narrowly by county and one demographic marker (e.g., age, sex, race). These findings are robust to alternative specifications and cannot be explained by geographic variation in cost of living, access to emergency medical care, or suicide misclassification. Our results support findings using self-reported happiness data and are consistent with models of utility featuring “external habit” or “Keeping Up with the Joneses” preferences.

Article Citation

Wilson, Daniel J., Mary C. Daly, and Norman J. Johnson. 2007. “Relative Status and Well-Being: Evidence from U.S. Suicide Deaths,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Working Paper 2007-12. Available at

About the Authors
Mary C. Daly
Mary C. Daly is president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Learn more about Mary C. Daly
Daniel Wilson
Daniel Wilson is a vice president in the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Learn more about Daniel Wilson