(or How to Enjoy the RV (Happily)
Originally posted 06/25/2014
MAY 26, 2014
By JOHN TIERNEY
If you have won the lottery, or if you plan to do so, please keep reading this column. The information is vital not just to your happiness but also to the progress of social science.
You have a chance to dispel the notion of the curse of the lottery, which is blamed whenever a big winner ends up divorced, depressed, destitute or dead. Journalists like to explain that the curse is no mere legend — the futility of winning the jackpot has been demonstrated by actual scientists with jobs at accredited universities.
The evidence comes from an influential paper in 1978 reporting that lottery winners were not any happier than their neighbors or more optimistic about the future. In fact, they weren’t any more optimistic about their future happiness than a group of people who had been in accidents that left them paralyzed.
It was one of the first studies testing the theory that we’re all stuck on a “hedonic treadmill,” a term coined by the paper’s lead author, Philip Brickman, for the idea that good or bad events don’t permanently affect our levels of happiness.
The theory remains popular with many psychologists, and the lottery study is still one of the prime pieces of supporting evidence.
But the study involved only 22 lottery winners, and it didn’t reveal whether their happiness changed. It measured their feelings at just one point in time, typically within a year of hitting the jackpot, and it compared them at that point with neighbors whose names were chosen from a phone book.
Dr. Brickman and his co-authors noted the limitations and urged more rigorous research tracking winners’ feelings over time. (He died in 1982.)
It has taken a few decades, but that research has finally been done. The findings are good news for those who hit the jackpot — and for the rest of us who want to get off that hedonic treadmill.
The feelings of hundreds of lottery winners were tracked in two separate studies, both drawing on a British national survey of adults who were extensively interviewed annually about their states of mind and about events in their lives.
One of the studies, by Bénédicte Apouey and Andrew E. Clark of the Paris School of Economics, found that people tended to drink and smoke a little more after winning the prize, but that their overall physical health remained the same.
Their levels of stress declined over two years while their positive feelings increased, so that their general psychological well-being was significantly higher two years after winning than it had been beforehand.
The other study, by Jonathan Gardner and Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick in England, found that winners’ psychological well-being dipped slightly the year they won the prize, but more than rebounded the next two years.
The winners ended up much better off psychologically, and also better off than both the general population and a sample of lottery players who hadn’t won a significant prize.
The curse of the lottery was further debunked in a survey of more than 400 Swedish lottery winners by Anna Hedenus, a sociologist at the University of Gothenburg. She found that most winners refrained from splurging, preferring to save or invest the prize money, and that most reported being quite content.
“The story about the unhappy, squandering winner primarily functions as a cautionary tale,” Dr. Hedenus says. “But this is not the common reaction to the lottery windfall.”
Still, it does take a little time to adjust. Dr. Oswald, a behavioral economist, notes that the initial stress reported by the British winners in his study jibes with other evidence.
“No researcher has ever found that people are happier in the first year after winning the lottery,” he says. “My own hunch is that they have to talk themselves into believing they deserved it.
It may also be that neighbors and relatives have to be dealt with in the first year, if only subconsciously, and that that is another reason the quest for immediate happiness is thwarted.”
Those adjustment problems could well last longer for the really big winners in American lotteries. The maximum jackpots in the European studies were the equivalent of about $250,000 in Britain and $1 million in Sweden — nothing like the hundreds of millions of dollars awarded in the Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries. Those jackpots can inspire a lifelong attitude among friends and relatives: You can’t possibly spend all that money yourself. Let me help you.
“Big jackpot winners say everyone they ever met comes out of the woodwork and asks for money, especially their family,” says Michael I. Norton, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School.
In the book“Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” Dr. Norton, a co-author, reports that giving away money is one of the surest ways to increase your happiness, but he doesn’t see much joy in a jackpot winner being hounded the rest of his life by people looking for charity.
“The problem with a big lottery win,” Dr. Norton says, “is that it adds a group of people to your life that you don’t want to be in contact with, and it disrupts the relationships with the people you do want to be in contact with.”
That does sound like a curse, but Dr. Norton hypothesizes that there’s an antidote:
Keep your jackpot secret.
Tell no one but your spouse; make no extravagant purchases or gifts at first, but slowly increase your spending and your giving so no one will suspect your newfound wealth.
Dr. Oswald, the British researcher, endorses anonymity as a good long-term strategy, but he suspects there will still be problems at first.
“If I won the lottery, I would keep the fact to myself,” he says. “But my research in this area makes me think that even then I would not immediately be happier. Especially if people win big, I reckon that in the middle of the night they cannot shake off, deep inside the mind, the nagging feeling of not deserving the money. You can keep the win anonymous to everyone except yourself.”
Last year, a $400 million Powerball jackpot was collected anonymously in South Carolina, which does not require public disclosure of the winner. Most other states do, but just because lotteries crave publicity doesn’t mean you have to provide it.
Robert Pagliarini, a financial adviser in California specializing in “sudden wealth” clients, says :
it’s often possible to keep your identity secret (which he definitely advises) by setting up a trust or a company to receive the prize money.
Would anonymity prevent the curse even for huge jackpots? Dr. Norton and several other psychologists would like to join me in testing that hypothesis. But before the researchers can ask any questions, we have to find a sample of subjects.
We know you secret winners are out there. You have the power to disprove the curse of the lottery once and for all by writing me (or having your lawyer do it).
We promise to protect your anonymity. And we swear we won’t ask you to share the money.