Tag Archives: Lottery

The lottery of happiness

Who hasn’t dreamt of it? Spending a couple of euros on a lottery ticket to win an amazing prize. Probably you, like everybody else, have fantasised what you’d do with a million euros. Maybe you would buy a nice villa, buy a Porsche and a Bentley, or make a big trip to Brazil. Or donate some money to charity, of course.

Most of us are aware that the chance of winning a lottery is minimal. That’s why lotteries are also called a tax on stupidity. But still, speak to the villagers of Leganes who won  a combined €360 million in ‘El Gordo’, the fat one, Spain’s annual Christmas lottery. Or to the inhabitants in Vrouwenpolder, a village of barely 1000 people who won €42,9 million in a Dutch lottery just before Christmas.

Some ecards lottery

Source: www.someecards.com

But let’s ask another question: would winning the lottery make you happier? Large sums of money definitely make your life easier. But that big house and Porsche don’t make you happy. There are plenty of newspaper stories around of lottery winners who get completely crazy and change their lives for the worse. Take Keith Gough, who started with the purchase of a new home and a box in the stadium of his favourite football team after a 9 million pounds win in 2005. But then he started drinking, ended up losing his wife, and met a bandit in rehab tricking him into ‘deals’ that lost him his wealth. The story ends in 2010, when Gough dies of a heart attack caused by stress and drinking. And he’s just one – Time even has made a full gallery of them.

This is not just anecdotal evidence. Scientific studies confirm that large sums of money generally do not suddenly change our lives for the better. A seminal study, undertaken in 1978 by Brickman et al. surveyed the happiness level of lottery winners and people who had ended up in a wheel chair one year after the event. Their surprising conclusion was that there was no measurable effect on happiness level

A 2008 study of the Dutch postcode lottery – the same one in which Vrouwenpolder’s millions were won – found  a similar result. Though families had changed some of their life patterns (building a car or rebuilding their house, going to restaurants more often), this had no effect on their happiness.

This is due to a very simple psychological phenomenon: adaptation. Once our situation changes, we very easily adapt to the new reality of our lives. Suppose you are always dreaming of a big house with a pool. Once you have it, at a certain point in time it becomes normal – and it fails to make you happy. Somewhat fortunately, this process of adaptation also applies to negative events, such as losing the ability to walk.

So if you unfortunately win the lottery, what should you do? Their are various recipes for happiness. The most important though is to spend your money on experiences, rather than on material things. Spend your money on a vacation, go visit your friends in far away cities. Even if the experience is short, a good memory can live for a long time.

So what would I do if I won a lottery? I probably wouldn’t change my life that much. I’d keep working, I’d probably wouldn’t move houses and I’d keep this blog. I’d spend some money traveling – seeing Costa Rica and Bhutan. But most likely, you don’t give a damn!

The manufacture of happiness

This article was written by Jasper Bergink and Maroussia Klep and was first published in the fifth issue of Ionic Magazine (www.ionicmagazine.co.uk), a wonderful magazine that aims to bridge the gap between two seemingly distant disciplines: art and science. The artwork is by Maroussia Klep.

IONIC painting Maroussia

The manufacture of happiness

Have you ever desired to be in the place of this happy family on the cover of magazines, or to live the same passionate love story as that couple on a TV show? Our society – probably more than any other before – makes you feel the urge to “be happy”. At the same time, the trick of consumerism is to make happiness a never ending and unattainable quest.

How would you react if we told you that you actually have the capacity to manufacture your own happiness?

As Abraham Lincoln reportedly put it some 150 years ago, “people are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Since then, behavioural researchers have worked hard to put scientific terms on this observation. Dan Gilbert, a professor in psychology at Harvard University, distinguishes two terms to describe this phenomenon: natural and synthetic happiness. The first refers to happiness as we usually tend to picture it: the deep feeling of joy you experience when you finally get the job you wanted or date the person you are in love with. Synthetic happiness however is a feeling of happiness that you can unconsciously create, even when you do not get what you wanted. Remarkably, Gilbert claims that synthesised happiness makes you feel as good and is as long-lasting as the natural ‘version’.


This is all very appealing but it opens a new question: how can one attain or ‘manufacture’ this alternative state of happiness? As a matter of fact, it does not require any special trick. It lies actually at the heart of human nature and relies on the amazing capacity of every person to adapt to his environment. This holds both for changes in the physical world around us as in psychological terms. A famous study by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman compared the happiness levels of three groups: lottery winners, paraplegics (as a result of an accident), and people who hadn’t won a lottery nor were disabled. Common sense would make one inclined to think that the lottery winners would have a higher level of happiness than the disabled. On the short term, this must be true. Brickman and his team realised however that this initial effect had completely gone within a year. As time passed, participants adapted to their new situation, with no measurable difference in their respective happiness levels one year after the win of the lottery or the accident.

Human nature is of course more complex. One of the main obstacles in today’s society, which hampers our ability to manufacture happiness through adaptation, is the abundance of choice to which one is confronted. Excessive freedom, and the availability of multiple alternatives, can act as a paralysing factor. The study of Barry Schwartz is enlightening in this regard to understand the ‘paradox of choice’. During his observations, participants in a supermarket were offered the opportunity to taste and purchase six jams. In another setup, the number of jams was 24. Unexpectedly, Schwartz realised that when the number of jams increased, the level of interest and of purchase decreased rather than increased.

Limit your options

From these observations it can be concluded that too much freedom can actually be detrimental to one’s level of happiness. When faced with a limited number of options, a person can more easily adapt to his or her limits and make the most out of what is available. In other words, it makes ‘synthesizing’ easier. This observation is certainly not an argument to set ambitions aside and be complacent. On the contrary, it is by identifying your own ambitions and striving to attain your personal objectives that you will attain the highest levels of satisfaction. There is no point in considering fifteen different careers that are not fit to you. This will only make you unhappy. Instead, the lesson learned here is to focus on what you want and to restrict your panel of possibilities to what could give you most satisfaction – then, whatever the result, synthetic happiness will do the rest!