Instinctively we already know the answer to the question ‘Are Lottery Winners happier ?”
Think of a time/event when you were incredibly happy, but it did not cost any money (e.g. writing a poem which made a loved one smile). Now, think of a time / event which cost you lots of money but did not make you happy (e.g. a meal in expensive restaurant with a loved one which ended in an argument).
We already know that money doesn’t make us happier (yes, I know – “but it helps“), yet we often act as if it was the core function of happiness.
Back in the 90’s there was a phenomenon called “Retail Therapy”, as I understand it this was the process whereby people cheered themselves up by buying stuff. Whilst the term may have disappeared I very much doubt that the phenomenon has. If Retail Therapy works then logically the more we buy the happier we would be.
Further, as money allows us to buy more then richer people should be happier than those with less money. Have we not all secretly had that lottery winning fantasy ? (“oh, my life would be so much better if only I could have a big lottery win”).
What would you do if you had a big lottery win ? Bigger house, give up work move to tropical island , new car etc ? This is a serious question because psychological research shows us that what lottery winners choose to do with their winnings seriously affects their happiness.
Daniel Kahnemann set us an interesting challenge in a recent lecture:
imagine that you are planning your next holiday (money and location are not constraints) – where would you go & what would you do ? Now imagine that you are planning that holiday, again there are no constraints on budget nor location, however in this scenario after the holiday you will have absolutely no recollection of the holiday itself. How do your plans change from the first scenario to the second ?
Kahnemann’s task gives us a great insight into the role of memory and happiness. It is often the recalled experience of happiness that makes us happy, at least as happy as the experience itself.
Back to our lottery winners.
In 1978 Brickman, Coates & Janoff Bulman researched the question whether lottery winners were happier than others. They compared 22 ‘big win’ lottery winners with 29 accident victims, who had been paralysed by their accidents. They also included 22 non-winners/non-accident victims as controls.
If we rephrased the question to most people as “would you be happier if you won the lottery or had a serious accident, and were left paralysed ?” ‘common sense’ would be that we would all answer “I’d be happier if I won the lottery” (of course).
The results were very surprising:
- Lottery winners were only marginally happier than the accident victims.
- Lottery winners were no happier than the controls (people who had neither won the lottery nor had a serious accident)
- Accident Victims found much more happiness when recalling their past than Lottery Winners did (“the nostalgia effect”).
- Both controls and accident victims found much more happiness in the mundane/everyday events, of which daily life is comprised, than lottery winners did.
Possible reasons for the findings.
Brickman, Coates & Janoff Bulman suggest that there are two key effects arising from Adaptation Level Theory which lead to the results:
- Contrast Effect – the effect that all experiences are compared with the most extreme example of that experience. Therefore if a person has a big lottery win (their ‘peak experience’) they will compare all future experiences to this, often finding them wanting.
- Habituation Effect – Any experience is compared to the average of all past experiences. Therefore a big lottery win reduces the intensity of all past and future experiences.
I find the research finding on happiness derived from mundane activities most interesting. Most of life, for most people, comprises of mundane everyday activities. How we experience these activities will be the “palette of happiness” of our lives. In this area we have some agency as to how we experience these activities. Can we find beauty, wonder, awe and sensation in the everyday tasks, chores and experiences ? Can we look at the detail of the apparently mundane and see inherent beauty, and happiness?
In Yoga and meditation we try to gain a greater degree of self awareness, and immediate presence. In bringing this self awareness and immediate presence to our everyday I think that we will find it easier to appreciate the apparently mundane. In doing so we will be happier, and will have truly ‘won the lottery’.
BRICKMAN, P., COATES, D. & JANOFF-BULMAN, R. (1978). Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36/8, 917-927.
http://www.lascap.de/Downloads/Happiness.pdf Accessed 16:00 ICT, 28/01/2014
http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&uid=1980-01001-001 Accessed 16:00 ICT, 28/01/2014