How winning the lottery affects your happiness, according to psychology research

In Politics & Society
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Last week when Massachusetts hospital worker Mavis Wanczyk won the huge $758.7 million Powerball jackpot, I wondered how winning might affect one’s wellbeing.

You would think a huge win like this would make you happy.

Experience has shown, however, the elation doesn’t last long, and research agrees. Winning a large sum of money will make you more comfortable, but it won’t make you happy — the many instances of big wins leading to misery when big winners end up big losers are proof of that.

The initial surge of elation soon dissipates and winners of lotteries settle back to their normal level of happiness, research has found.

Researchers who study happiness say that everyone has a certain level of happiness that stays relatively constant but can be altered by particular events that make the person happy or sad. After some time though, the winner will go back to the same happiness level that they were previously. So, happy or sad, you’ll return to what your usual state of being.

This is fascinating.

In 1978, researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts compared the happiness levels of two very different groups: recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery — whose prizes ranged from $50,000 to $1 million — and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. The two groups were asked to rate their levels of enjoyment from everyday activities like chatting with a friend or eating breakfast.

This is what surprised the researchers: the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners.

Winning the lottery didn’t make people happier and a catastrophic accident also didn’t make people as unhappy as expected.

This return to a basic, customary level of happiness, called “hedonic adaptation”, caused the lotto winners to get accustomed to the comforts of their new affluent lifestyle.

Interestingly, these research findings seems to echo the take of Buddhism on the relationship between external events and happiness.

According to the Dalai Lama, “Happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events.”

He says identifying one’s mental state is the prime factor in achieving happiness. Of course we must see to it that our basic physical needs for food, clothing, and shelter are met, but once these basic needs are met, the message is clear: we don’t need more money, we don’t need greater success or fame, we don’t need the perfect body or even the perfect mate.

Right now, at this very moment, we have a mind, which is all the basic equipment we need to achieve complete happiness.

References: Business Insider, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology