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- At 10:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, a lucky winner could take home the $700 million Powerball jackpot. Most people assume winning would make them happier, but some research indicates lottery winners struggle to enjoy everyday pleasures. Some researchers think people have a set point for happiness and big changes don’t affect it as much as we imagine.
You know what sounds pretty great? Finding out that you’ve won the $700 million Powerball jackpot.
The lump sum minus taxes yields about $293 million to play with, depending on where you live. Divide that by two or three to account for multiple winners, and it’s still a ton of money. Buying a ticket may not be a financially rational decision, but you’d imagine that winning even a chunk of that money would make you super happy – right?
If you’re not happy already, winning the lottery might not make a difference in the long term.
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The psychology of rolling in piles of cash
There’s some fascinating research on the psychology of lotteries. Studies have found that people are compelled to buy tickets because we have a hard time processing just how unlikely a win is and give ourselves reasons to think we could somehow win.
Some research has also suggested that the desire to play the lottery may be stronger among people with lower incomes who hope to escape difficult financial circumstances.
But perhaps most interestingly, research indicates that winning the lottery doesn’t make people happier in the long term. Contrary to popular belief, however, it doesn’t seem to make people more likely to go on spending sprees that leave them broken and unhappy either.
Winners mostly report ending up about as happy as they were before winning.
A classic 1978 study on this compared 22 lottery winners with 22 control-group members (who didn’t win any money) and 29 people who were paralyzed in accidents.
In general, the lottery winners reported being happier than the people with paraplegia or quadriplegia – a 4 out of 5 versus a 2.96 out of 5. The control group averaged 3.82 out of 5, not significantly different from lottery winners. However, lottery winners reported getting the least enjoyment from what researchers called “mundane pleasures” – enjoyable aspects of everyday life like eating breakfast or talking with a friend.
Researchers were surprised that lottery winners didn’t report being significantly happier than non-winners, and that the average among people who had been in accidents was above the scale’s midpoint. Overall, winning the lottery didn’t increase happiness as much as others thought it would, and a catastrophic accident didn’t make people as unhappy as one might expect.
As Melissa Dahl noted in Science of Us, this is how the authors described how winning might make it harder to enjoy everyday life:
“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.”
Although the 1978 study was small, a 2008 study of Dutch lottery winners reported similar findings. Those authors found that people who earned more money reported being happier – something psychologists have found is true up to a certain income threshold – but “lottery winnings do not make households happier.”
The concept at play here is called hedonic adaptation. People have been shown to return to a kind of set point of happiness after events that we assume will have a big effect on how we feel.
“Some of us have our thermostat set to happy. Some are set to depressed. Meanwhile, others are somewhere in between,” the psychologist Robert Puff wrote in Psychology Today. “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.”
There are things that we can do to influence our happiness, however, including cultivating strong relationships, spending time and money on fun experiences, and exercising. Perhaps a lucky lottery winner could devote their newfound wealth to those sorts of goals. But winning itself doesn’t seem to be enough to boost happiness in the long term.
Still, it’s pretty fun to imagine what that money could be used for – a mental state some psychologists say is perhaps the best reason to play the lottery in the first place.