There are two towering paradoxes in New Zealand.
First, why is productivity growth so weak, when so many "pro-growth" policies have been designed over the past several decades to help solve this problem?
The other paradox is far darker. In spite of low productivity, the country has still delivered up one of the highest levels of well-being in the world, at least according to numerous surveys.
But then why does NZ have such a disturbingly high rate of suicides?
Like the productivity paradox, this question has spawned an endless number of investigations and reviews. Many experts have tried to identify the source of the problem and offer solutions. None of them have cracked it.
The Government's Chief Scientific Officer published a paper for "discussion" back in 2017. The main conclusion? Policies which "promote resilience" amongst children to emotional stresses should be adopted.
Now, two years later, new figures show that the number of suicides in NZ has climbed even more, reaching its highest level since records began 12 years ago. The Prime Minister announced that this problem is "one of our biggest long-term challenges as a nation". She argued that her government's "well-being budget" will help by allocating $1.9 billion to mental health over five years. But will it? How can one propose a solution to the suicide problem when no one has been successful at identifying the cause?
Extraordinarily, the latest international studies on this issue have come up with a remarkable conclusion. Namely that New Zealand's "happiness paradox" is not some kind of exception to a rule. It is the norm. We are amongst the world's top 10 countries whose citizens, by and large, report themselves as being close to living "the best possible life", along with the likes of Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland.
Yet these societies have something in common with us. A dark side of marginalised people who end up killing themselves at an alarming rate.
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The most influential study which documents this fact proposes a new and startling explanation. Feelings of desperation and misery appear to be made worse when surrounded by others who are highly content with their lives. In other words, it is certainly not the people who report themselves as being happy in countries such as NZ, Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland who are more prone to take their own life. Instead it is the relatively small group who feel left out and are made to feel even more left out when they observe the rapturously positive emotions of the smugly contented majority.
This explanation strikes a chord. One of NZ's greatest strengths is its number one world status in terms of being constituted by a people who are, on the whole, generous, volunteer in community activities, trust others and enjoy the support of friends and family. But the strength of these ties may well serve to heighten an extreme sense of desperation in those not benefiting from them.
Bullying directed towards others who are not part of the "in-crowd" at school has long been a feature of this country. Not to mention the social marginalisation one experiences if you are not interested in rugby, or a narrow set of activities, which mainly revolve around sport.
Being labelled "different" or "odd" or "weird" has always given rise to great mental stress in NZ, although has never been such a problem in places like New York, where one can quite easily connect with others who are just as different or odd or weird as you are. Andy Warhol may not have ever survived in NZ, but he thrived over there.
Furthermore, many of the "elite" in those kinds of cities have their own problems and their lifestyles are not necessarily even an object of desire. Remarkably, New York is the state with the lowest suicide rate in the US.
If we do take it to be a truth that New Zealanders have created a nation with an incredibly high sense of well-being for the vast majority, but which, in turn, has led to an even deeper sense of despair experienced by those who feel outcasts in the otherwise happy show, then the solutions so far proposed by the experts are unlikely to ever solve the suicide problem.
• Robert is the Matthew S. Abel Professor of Macroeconomics, University of Auckland
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757