Money Is Not Key to Happiness

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powerball_iConsider the story of Andrew “Jack” Whittaker, the winner of a Powerball lottery in December 2002. Mr. Whittaker was a wealthy man when he won the $315 million lottery, the owner of a successful West Virginia construction company. By all accounts, he was a happy man with friends and family. As Whittaker said at the time of his win, “If I can help it, I’m not going to change. I’m content with my life. I’m not going to change my life much.” Within 5 years, however, Whittaker was a broken, divorced man who had lost his granddaughter to a drug overdose, had been victimized numerous times by friends and strangers, and spent his fortune on strip clubs and gambling. In 2007, in an interview with ABC News, he lamented, “Since I won the lottery, I think there is no control of greed. I think if you have something, there is always someone else that wants it. I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”
Whittaker’s experience is not unique; a study by the National Endowment for Financial Education reported on NBC News indicates that 70% of people who have a financial windfall lose the money within a few years. While most people believe that sudden wealth will naturally make them happy and their good fortune will enable them to fulfill all of their dreams, studies indicate that events like winning the lottery has no long term effect on happiness. In fact, a famous study by psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman showed there was no significant difference in the feelings of happiness expressed by lottery winners and accident victims who became paralyzed – a drastic change in quality of life – 18 months after the event. More than half of the members in each group indicate they were happy in their circumstances.
Other studies have shown there is no differences between people who had recently experienced a romantic break-up versus those who had not, between assistant professors who had been denied tenure and those who received it, or those whose preferred political candidate won or lost. Surprisingly and somewhat counter-intuitive, happiness research suggests that neither very good events nor very bad events seem to change people’s happiness much in the long term. Most people, it seems, revert back to some kind of baseline happiness level within a couple years of even the most devastating events, like the death of a spouse or loss of limbs.