While some people buy lottery tickets expecting to win, many people do it for the dreams. They imagine what they would buy and how much better their life would be if they won. Then the balls drop and you lose and go back to your regular old life. But how much happier would you really be?
A classic study interviewed 29 quadriplegic and paraplegic accident victims, 22 major lottery winners and 22 controls to determine their happiness before the unexpected event, current levels and their expected future happiness. The participants’ ability to derive pleasure from mundane events was also questioned. The researchers found that the lottery winners did not see themselves as significantly happier than the control group in the past, present or future. The lottery winners did experience significantly less pleasure from mundane events than controls though. On the flip side, accident victims romanticized their past as being significantly happier than controls, while they viewed their current situation as significantly less happy.
How can the lottery winners not be significantly happier than controls? The researchers believed that the results were due to two phenomenon. First, the thrill of winning the lottery make mundane pleasurable events seem less pleasurable in contrast.
The second limit to good fortune is habituation. Eventually, 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. In sum, the effects of an extreme stroke of good fortune should be weakened in the short run by a contrast effect that lessens the pleasure found in mundane events and in the long run by a process of habituation -that erodes the impact of the good fortune itself.
So, don’t fret if you didn’t win the lottery. You probably wouldn’t have been nearly as happy in the long-term as you had imagined. But, here’s a summary of research-backed ways to make you happier that don’t require one in 292 million odds.
Brickman, Philip, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. “Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?.” Journal of personality and social psychology 36.8 (1978): 917.