Why Doesn’t Winning the Lottery Make a Person Happy?

Good luck can bring some brief happiness, but to have a lasting sense of well-being, you must have goals and you must work to achieve those goals.

--image by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

–image by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

In the last 20 years, most positive psychologists have come to the conclusion that winning the lottery does not necessarily make someone happy, at least after the initial euphoria wears off. Most of us ordinary folks find this conclusion a little hard to swallow. We imagine getting all that money along with lasting happiness, not to mention success, good relationships, long life and all the pie in the sky one could eat. Surely a stroke of luck of such magnitude should bring a little happiness!

As a matter of fact, a chance event can bring short-term happiness. Long-term happiness, however, is different. A lasting sense of well-being is the result of what a person does in life, rather than something that happens to a person.

Short-term Elation and Hedonic Adaptation

For a lottery winner, the world looks bright for a brief period of time. Spending money when you suddenly come into a whole lot of it can be fun! It’s new and exciting! This kind of happiness comes without anybody working for it and without apparent cause. It comes on quickly, it feels wonderful, and then it fades away. .

Such happiness is fleeting as the result of a psychological phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation.” “Hedonic” means “devoted to pleasure.” Hedonic adaptation lessens pleasure. Because of the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation, almost as soon as someone’s circumstances change for the better, an adaptation to the change takes place and one is no longer so happy. As the lottery winner may put it, “Winning was exciting, but now I have all this money. Money is boring.”

Long-term Well-Being and the Set Point

What happens when the excitement of winning has faded? There is a level of happiness that one returns to over and over in life after any elation or depression, any joy or sorrow. Positive psychologists call this level a “set point.” Everyone’s set point is inherited, and this value is not subject to much change. It’s a little like height: If an adult is 5’5”, there’s virtually no chance that this person will grow to be 6’ tall.

When discussing a set point for the lottery winner, it’s important to realize that the winner’s level of happiness will return to baseline once the elation of winning fades away. The winner may have a high set point, and in this case when the excitement is over, she’ll be just as happy as she was before the win. Or if her set point is low, she will not be happier a year down the road simply because she has more money to spend.

Becoming Truly Happy and Intentional Activities

Can anything be done to give this lottery winner lasting happiness? Is this person stuck at a particular set point until another fortuitous event occurs? Is happiness nothing more than heredity and chance?

To be truly happy over time, someone with a low set point cannot just sit around, unhappy, waiting for something to happen. This person must work to make something good happen, thereby making that low set point irrelevant. After all, if one is continually engaged in happy activities and situations, and only rarely returns to his set point, it hardly matters whether his set point is high or low.

Doing happy things is a very informal definition for what the positive psychologists call “intentional activities.” Intentional activities in the pursuit of goals and dreams are now known to counteract not just a low set point but also the hedonic adaptation that lessens the pleasure we take in any once-new activity.

Intentional activities include:

  • Setting appropriate goals
  • Working, sometimes very hard, to fulfill one’s goals and dreams
  • Getting involved in the work
  • Having good experiences along the way
  • Eventually maybe even realizing success

Did the lottery winner spend her winnings wisely? Did she have a lifelong dream? Did she set some goals? Has she spent the year being involved in the work needed to succeed at her goals? If she is using her lottery winnings to fulfill her dreams, it is likely that she is happy today.

Goals, Dreams and Happiness

A lottery winner experiences an immediate high after the excitement of winning. The high subsides as he adapts to the excitement. Within a year or so, he is back to his happiness set point. If his set point is not high, it is particularly important for him to spend his winnings wisely, working to achieve goals and fulfill dreams.

Sources

  • Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, by Sonja Lyubomirsky,
  • University of California, Riverside; Kennon M. Sheldon, University of Missouri—Columbia; and David Schkade, University of California, San Diego
  • Subjective Well-Being: Three Decades of Progress, Ed Diener, Eunkook M. Suh, Richard E. Lucas, and Heidi L. Smith, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This article was published originally by Suite101.com.

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