Will winning the lottery make you happier? Imagine winning a multi-million dollar lottery tomorrow. If you’re like many of us, you’d be ecstatic, unable to believe your good luck. But would that joy still be there a few years later? Maybe not. A famous study of 22 lottery winners showed that months after winning, their average reported levels of happiness had increased no more than that of a control group who hadn’t won the lottery. Some were actually unhappier than they had been before winning.
And later studies have confirmed that our emotional well-being, how often and how intensely we feel things like joy, sorrow, anxiety, or anger, don’t seem to improve with wealth or status beyond a certain point. This has to do with a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation, or the hedonic treadmill. It describes our tendency to adapt to new situations to maintain a stable emotional equilibrium. When it comes to feeling happy, most of us seem to have a base level that stays more or less constant throughout our existence.
Of course, the novelty of better food, superior vacations, and more beautiful homes can at first make you feel like you’re walking on air, but as you get used to those things, you revert to your default emotional state. That might sound pretty gloomy, but hedonic adaptation makes us less emotionally sensitive to any kind of change, including negative ones. The study with the lottery winners also looked at people who had suffered an accident that left them paralyzed. When asked several months after their accidents how happy they were, they reported levels of happiness approaching their original baseline.
So while the hedonic treadmill may inhibit our enjoyment of positive changes, it seems to also enable our resilience in recovering from adversity. There are other reasons that winning the lottery may not make us happier in the long run. It can be difficult to manage large sums of money, and some lottery winners wind up spending or losing it all quickly. It can also be socially isolating. Some winners experience a deluge of unwelcome requests for money, so they wind up cutting themselves off from others.
And wealth may actually make us meaner. In one study, participants played a rigged game of monopoly where the experimenters made some players rich quickly. The wealthy players started patronizing the poorer players and hogging the snacks they were meant to share. But just because a huge influx of cash isn’t guaranteed to bring joy into your life doesn’t mean that money can never make us happier. Findings show that we adapt to extrinsic and material things, like a new car or a bigger house, much faster than we do to novel experiences, like visiting a new place or learning a new skill.
So by that reasoning, the more you spend money on experiences rather than things, the happier you’d be. And there’s another way to turn your money into happiness: spend it on other people. In one study, participants were given some money and were either asked to spend it on themselves or on someone else. Later that evening, researchers called up these participants and asked them how happy they were.
The happiness levels of those who had spent the money on others were significantly greater than that of those who had spent it on themselves. And that seems to be true around the world. Another study examined the generosity of over 200,000 people from 136 countries. In over 90% of these countries, people who donated tended to be happier than those who didn’t. But this may all be easier said than done. Let’s say a million dollars falls into your lap tomorrow. What do you do with it?