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The Surprising Science Behind Whether Money Can Buy REAL Happiness

Photo: Massachusetts State Lottery
money can't buy happiness
Self

Spoiler: It can. (But only in a few specific ways.)

An August 23rd, 2017, Mavis Wanczyk, a hospital worker from Chicopee, Massachusetts became the winner of the largest undivided lottery jackpot in the history of North America.

With the prize at $758.7 million, Wanczyk decided to take a lump-sum payment of $480 million, leaving her $336 million after taxes. It might end up being only about half of the win, but it’s still more money than she ever imagined having.

Beyond the joy of winning an amount of money that not only allows her to live comfortably for the rest of her life, Wanczyk also became way more popular than she thought she would ever be. The media and social media surrounded her, the police have a permanent patrol stationed at her house, making her an overnight celebrity and a target.

But can all that money buy happiness if you weren't already happy?

 

In November 2015, another lottery winner, Craigory Burch Jr., got all five numbers in the Georgia Fantasy 5 drawing and won a $434,272 jackpot.

As it turns out, the win wasn’t all good luck for him, because two months later, he was killed in his home by seven masked men who kicked in his front door and tried to rob him. During the two months, the media exposure drew so much attention to his life that it became impossible to even have the smallest amount of privacy, let alone enjoy his winnings.

Craigory is not the only one who didn’t really reap the benefits of a big financial windfall. 

Turns out, multiple studies on lottery winners have shown that money really doesn’t buy happiness  at least not in the long run.

In 1978, a study led by a trio of researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts, compared 22 lottery winners with 22 control-group members (who didn't win any money) and 29 people who were paralyzed in accidents.

While overall the lottery winners reported being happier than the ones who were paralyzed, there were minimal differences between them and the control group who didn’t win anything, and had nothing significant change in their lives.

However, the surprising result was that lottery winners reported the least enjoyment coming from everyday activities like talking or spending time with a good friend or a family member.

Overall, winning the lottery didn't increase happiness as much as others thought it would, and a terrible life-altering accident didn't make people as unhappy as one might expect.

But why exactly does this happen? After all, for all of us the idea of winning millions of dollars brings immediate squeals of joy and grand plans for the future.

 

The question was partially answered by Melissa Dalh in "The Science of Us" section of the NY Magazine. Her article, A Classic Psychology Study on Why Winning the Lottery Won’t Make You Happier, reveals that winning the lottery is only a temporary source of joy.

"Eventually," Dalh explains, "The thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged.

Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness."

Which basically means that we get used to our new baseline relatively quick and we start judging everything in accordance to the new baseline.

It's like your definition of happiness changes.

Before winning the lottery, the idea of buying a new car or a home was something that involved a lot of effort, planning ahead, maybe even sacrificing a few things. In other words, the pre-lottery winner mindset is that of working hard for every huge accomplishment. Nothing comes easily.

That all changes once a few hundred million fall into your lap. All of the sudden that home you’ve been dreaming of is not only achievable  it's easily attainable with minimal or no effort.

 

This is known as the hedonic adaptation.

Psychologist Robert Puff describes the hedonic adaptation like this, in Psychology Today:

"Some of us have our thermostat set to happy. Some are set to 'depressed'. Meanwhile, others are somewhere in between. When we experience a major event, say winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, our thermostat may temporarily swing up or down. But over time, it returns to its usual setting."

 

In the long run, we can change the setting of our "happiness thermostat" by making it not contingent on achieving a particular goal. Instead, we should focus on finding enjoyment along the way.

Turns out that “Life’s a journey, not a destination” actually has more truth to it than we initially thought, especially when it comes to learning how to be happy.

Using the set point of happiness as a guide for our everyday life, we easily realize the huge value is in enjoying every moment of our journey, rather than the delayed gratification of being happy when we get to achieve a certain goal.

Realizing that any accomplishment will only make us happy in the short run can allow us to re-evaluate our priorities and determine how we want to spend our time, money, and energy —  instead of simply looking for an outside stroke of luck or achievement to serve that purpose.

 

Lavinia Lumezanu is a communications and public relations executive who is passionate about reading, fitness, self-improvement and the latest advancements in technology. You can reach her at JustLav.com.

“Winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.” - Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

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