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What Lottery Winners and Accident Victims Can Teach You about Happiness
Big life events are not as life changing as you think
“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasure like cooking, one's home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.”
In the “Buying Happiness” series, we have explored how we can use money to maximize our potential happiness.
With the evidence we have gathered so far, we can confidently say that all else being equal, the more money you have, the happier you’ll be.
The question we will explore today is whether a sudden large lump sum of money creates lasting happiness.
If that is the case, getting rich as quickly as humanly possible would seem to be the optimal strategy to maximize happiness. If a sudden windfall is not the key to happiness, that would tell us that slowly accumulating wealth and how we decide what to do with our money on a daily basis matters more.
To answer that question, let’s examine the relative happiness of lottery winners and accident victims.
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How life-changing events impact happiness
In a classic paper, researchers conducted two studies to test the relative happiness of lottery winners and accident victims.1 It’s important to note that both these groups were extreme outliers, the lottery winners won jackpots, and the accident victims were all paraplegic or quadriplegic due to their accident.
The lottery winners and accident victims were asked to rate the life-changing event they experienced on a scale of 0-5, with zero being the worst thing that could happen in life and five being the best.
The lottery winners’ average score was 3.78, and the accident victims were 1.28. The similar difference from the “neutral” score of 2.5 indicated that the positive intensity of winning the lottery was about the same as the negative intensity of becoming paraplegic.
People view winning the lottery as a more positive life event than being in a horrible accident; that’s the kind of stunning insight you read this blog for. While this is an obvious result, knowing that the relative intensity of winning the lottery and being in an accident is roughly equal is important context for what comes next.
Things got interesting when the researchers asked questions about each group’s enjoyment of daily life.
Lottery winners, accident victims, and a control group were all asked to rate their enjoyment of various daily activities on the same 0-5 scale. They were asked to rate their past and present enjoyment and predict their future enjoyment of various daily activities.
When it comes to current happiness, the lottery winners’ average score was 4, and the accident victims scored 2.96. Lottery winners still reported being happier today but notice the gap in daily happiness is much smaller than the gap in how they viewed these extreme events. Lottery winners are not as happy, and accident victims are happier than we would have expected based on how they rated the impact of these events on their life.
It should also be noted that lottery winners did not report a significant increase in happiness relative to the control group.
When considering past happiness, accident victims scored the highest with a 4.41 compared to 3.77 for lottery winners. This makes sense, as the accident victims were being asked to remember a time before they lost their ability to walk.
Amazingly, accident victims also scored the highest on their prediction of future happiness, with a score of 4.32 compared to 4.2 for lottery winners. People who became paralyzed after a life-threatening accident were more optimistic than lottery winners.
Humans are remarkably adaptable
Why isn’t the gap in happiness between lottery winners and accident victims larger?
The researchers point to adaptation theory which says that how much you enjoy daily activities is based on your past experience and, specifically, how your brain interprets the memory and perception of past similar experiences.
If you meet your friend Jim for lunch, your brain will compare today’s lunch to your memory of the last time you had lunch with Jim. It’s important to note that your memory of past events may not be an accurate reflection of what happened, but your perception of what happened.
This is where we get the phrase “perception is reality.” Or, more accurately, perception can become your reality.
If I were recently in a car accident and lost my ability to walk during my next lunch with Jim, my brain would compare it to my last lunch with Jim—when I could still walk—and judge today’s lunch as less enjoyable.
But the further away you get from a life-changing event—like a horrible accident—the less it impacts your enjoyment of daily activities. If I met my friend Jim for lunch a third time, my brain might compare this lunch to the more recent lunch—where I was also paralyzed—and find that today’s lunch was pretty enjoyable.
If you were to plot out the reported happiness of lottery winners and accident victims, you would see a massive positive spike in happiness for lottery winners after winning, which slowly lowers back to a baseline level of happiness similar to the control group.
The same story plays out for accident victims with a large drop-off in happiness after the accident, with expected happiness returning close to their pre-accident baseline over time.
Happiness is in the little things
It turns out that big life-changing events are not what determines our happiness.
This is a good thing. It tells us that happiness is not dictated by random outlier events for which we have no control over but by how we live our lives every day and how we perceive those events in our mind—which we can control.
Whether or not we live a happy life is largely up to us, not fate.
This has all sorts of connections to how we earn, spend and invest our money which I’ll be diving deep into in future posts but for today, take comfort in knowing that you have the power to choose happiness.
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. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1247