Thursday, November 29, 2012

$550 Million Will Buy You a Lot of ... Misery

Lottery Booth
Lottery Booth (Photo credit: nep)

You surely know by now that the Powerball jackpot is set to hit at least $550 million tonight.

You should also know that your odds of winning the grand prize are somewhere around 1 in 176 million (at least, we really hope you know that). So here's a bit of comfort for you tonight as you stare dejectedly at your losing ticket: Most lottery winners don't end up any happier than the rest of us.

Yeah, yeah, you can probably name 550 million reasons why winning the jackpot tonight will make you happy.

But here's the truth: A handful of psychology studies over the years have evaluated the happiness of lottery winners over time, and found that after the initial glee of getting one of those big giant checks has faded away, most winners actually end up no happier than they were before hitting the jackpot.

Arguably the most famous paper on this subject was published the late 1970s, and it's a doozy: Psychologists interviewed winners of the Illinois State Lottery and compared them with non-winners - and, just for good measure, people who had suffered some terrible accident that left them paraplegic or quadriplegic (you can find the abstract here, but you'll have to pay to read the full report). Each group answered a series of questions designed to measure their level of happiness.

What they found was counterintuitive, to say the least: In terms of overall happiness, the lottery winners were not significantly happier than the non-lottery winners (the accident victims were less happy, but not by much).

But when it came to rating everyday happiness, the lottery winners took "significantly less pleasure" in the simple things like chatting with a friend, reading a magazine or receiving a compliment.

"Humans tend to have a relatively set point of mood," explains Gail Saltz, a New York City psychiatrist and frequent TODAY contributor. Most people tend to bounce back to that set point after a major life event, whether it's something negative or positive.

But for some lottery winners, psychologists believe hitting an especially huge jackpot may alter that happiness baseline, making it harder to see the joy in everyday things.

More recently than the '70s research, a 2008 University of California, Santa Barbara, paper measured people's happiness six months after winning a relatively modest lottery prize - a lump sum equivalent to about eight months' worth of income.

"We found that this had zero detectable effect on happiness at that time," says Peter Kuhn, one of the study authors and a professor of economics at the university.

To read further, go to: http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/28/15463411-550-million-will-buy-you-a-lot-of-misery
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