Who is happier: lottery winners or paralyzed accident victims?

Lottery winners… but not by nearly as much as you might guess.

Some time after winning their money, lottery winners weren’t all that much happier than people who hadn’t won — and accident victims weren’t anywhere as unhappy as the researchers had assumed.

Shouldn’t lottery winners be ecstatic and paralyzed accident victims be miserable? No.

What the authors of the study found was that:

1) Much of happiness exists outside of objective life circumstances. Attitude and perspective mean a lot more than actual events.

2) We’re prone to a contrast effect. Events in our lives don’t have set values; they’re compared to other events. Winning the lottery is such a big deal it actually makes every other good thing in the winner’s life less enjoyable.

3) We’re also prone to habituation. Simply put, we can get accustomed to nearly anything, no matter how good or bad. After time, a wheelchair doesn’t seem so bad — and a million dollars doesn’t seem as good.

From the study:

  • Lottery winners rated the pleasure of mundane events of everyday life significantly lower than controls…
  • Accident victims were not as unhappy, as expected. They reported lower general happiness, than lottery winners, but they reported happiness-levels that were quite well above the middle of the scale.
  • Lottery winners generate less pleasure by ordinary events of everyday life than controls. This effect can be explained by adaptation level theory and leads to the surprising fact, that they are not generally happier than people who didn ́t win in the lottery.
  • The accident victims also showed the expected contrast effect, but they contrasted the present events with events in the past. This can be called a „nostalgia effect“ which is expected to wear off, as time goes by.
  • The overall positive or negative effect of a single positive or negative event should not be overestimated: Most likely there are contrast effects, that compensate some of the effect and habituation effects, that limit the duration of a feeling generated by an event.

Source: “Is happiness relative?” from Pascal Wallisch, Freie Universität Berlin, reviewing “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?” J Pers Soc Psychol. 1978 Aug;36(8):917-27.

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