The record-breaking $1.6 billion Mega Millions jackpot raises an age-old question: Can money buy happiness?
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that big lottery wins don’t guarantee a better life. Instant multimillionaires William “Bud” Post, Jeffrey Dampier, and Jack Whittaker are just a few examples of how getting lucky can make you miserable—or kill you.
But what does science say?
As it turns out, there have been a number of studies over the years to determine the psychological effects of a big, life-changing windfall. The results vary and, of course, none of them have dealt with a payout as large as the one at stake on Tuesday night.
But if you like to have research in hand before making a big decision, here’s what the evidence shows:
- A classic 1978 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Science tried to gauge happiness by asking two extremely different groups of people how happy they were: 22 winners of the Illinois State Lottery who’d scored between $50,000 and $1 million versus accident victims with paralysis. Researchers asked how much pleasure people got from otherwise mundane everyday activities: watching television, hanging out with a pal, hearing an especially good joke. Lottery winners rated their happiness at 3.33 out of 5; the quadriplegics and paraplegics rated theirs 3.48.
- A preliminary paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May studied 3,362 “large prize winners” in Sweden. The researchers found that people’s happiness was unchanged, especially after winning more than $100,000. It did, however, suggest that jackpot winners’ experience “sustained increases in overall life satisfaction” that lasted more than a decade (life satisfaction refers to overall quality of life versus happiness, which corresponds to how a person feels on a daily basis). The study, though, noted that winners might have bought a ticket because they were dissatisfied with their lives, which could have made them more likely to experience a change.
- A May 2008 study examined the Dutch Postcode Lottery, in which a postal code is randomly selected each week and prizes are distributed to participating households. This gave researchers a chance to delve into the happiness of winners and the potential jealousy of non-winners living nearby. The upshot? “Lottery winnings do not make households happier, nor do they make neighboring households less happy,” the study found.
- A 2001 British study followed 9,000 randomly chosen people and found that winning the lottery or getting a large an inheritance leads to a bump in happiness for about a year before dropping off. About $1.5 million could nudge a person from sadness into happiness if they were especially gloomy, but the lasting impact of that happiness was unclear.
- Stories of winners who blew it all abound, and there have been reports that 70 percent of those who hit the jackpot end up bankrupt, attributed to the National Endowment for Financial Education. But the organization says it has no evidence to show that statistic—apparently uttered by someone during a panel discussion it sponsored—is based in reality.
There’s no question that people are generally overjoyed when they win the lottery, but it may not last. In 1971, psychologists coined a term for that phenomenon: the “hedonic treadmill,” or the idea that a person gets an initial surge of overwhelming happiness from an event that slowly dissipates over time. The name comes from the idea that a person on a treadmill has to constantly be moving to maintain their place.
The inability to sustain the initial feeling of thrill might be evolutionary—a constant state of being so intensely happy could make it difficult to prioritize or detect danger, for example—or it could just be that humans are wired to seek true happiness and fulfillment from non-material things. There’s disagreement about that theory—a drug addict seeking a high undermines it—but it could explain why people who suddenly end up richer than they ever dreamed don’t end up happier than they ever imagined.