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.
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