Does winning the lottery make you more happy, or less stressed?

This week’s $100 million lottery prize prompted ABC radio to ring me about the research finding that winning the lottery doesn’t make you happier. I declined the interview after discovering that I would be talking live to the nation’s insomniacs at 4.20am next Sunday morning (though did suggest a solution to this problem – find an overseas interviewee in a day time zone).

Though one early paper – which is cited in books on subjective well-being published up until a few years ago – did find some evidence for negative effects of lottery wins, it was never an especially strong finding. Winners in the sample experienced lesser ‘mundane’ pleasures than members of a control group, but their present ‘general happiness’ was higher. The authors of this paper also stressed that their survey was at a single point in time, and could not do genuine before and after tests of happiness changes.

This later paper by Andrew Oswald was able to use the British Household Panel Survey to do a genuine before and after examination of lottery winners. It found that

when compared to two control groups — one with no wins and the other with small wins — the paper demonstrates that these medium-size winners go on to have significantly better psychological health. After two years, their mental wellbeing, compared to before the lottery win, has improved by approximately 1.4 GHQ points, with a standard error of approximately 0.5. Arguably, this is a large effect.

One thing that particularly interests me about this finding is that it isn’t simply a happiness measure. The ‘GHQ’ is the General Health Questionnaire with these questions

1. Been able to concentrate on whatever you are doing?
2. Lost much sleep over worry?
3. Felt that you are playing a useful part in things?
4. Felt capable of making decisions about things?
5. Felt constantly under strain?
6. Felt you could not overcome your difficulties?
7. Been able to enjoy your normal day-to-day activities?
8. Been able to face up to your problems?
9. Been feeling unhappy and depressed?
10. Been losing confidence in yourself?
11. Been thinking of yourself as a worthless person?
12. Been feeling reasonably happy all things considered?

One of the most intriguing findings of the subjective well-being research is that there is not a simple ill-being to well-being spectrum. It’s possible to have elements of both ill-being and well-being. Having money can reduce ill-being even if does not increase well-being, by removing or easing financial worries and strains. Though it could not quantify it, the original 1978 study did say that lottery winners reported ‘decreased worries’.

Though of course money alone is unlikely to bring happiness, winning the lottery will rarely be negative.

11 thoughts on “Does winning the lottery make you more happy, or less stressed?

  1. Winning, winning, winning, it’s always about if winning makes you happier. What about losing? What about getting your hopes up each week, only to have them dashed?
    There are a lot more losers than winners, so, how much unhappier does it make one to be constantly not a winner. Punch-drunk and reeling from the never ending disappointments they reach for the anti-depressants ……. the cost of losing is the dark side of this lottery game.


  2. Clearly there are problem gamblers, but I am not sure that a weekly unsuccessful lottery entry is typically harmful. In the UK study, the non-winners had a GHQ score of 11.23, compared to an overall average of 11.19 (higher is worse, up to 36).


  3. I’ll volunteer to be the guinea pig for the potentially malevolent effects of suddenly coming into a large pile of thoroughly undeserved cash.


  4. Isn’t it true that lottery winners tend to spend all their winnings very quickly, and soon have nothing to show for it? That would surely be cause of unhappiness.

    This said, if I won $100 million, I would be happy. And I’d give enough away to family and good causes to make them happy, which in itself would make me happy, and have enough cash left over to still be happy about that.


  5. Well, I can tell you there would be a very big plasma television at the Sood residence (clothes and jewellry would be acquired to win my wife’s acquiescence) and some very comfortable imported furniture from Space to facilitate the viewing of it. There would also be home delivery from Cafe Di Stasio every night. On the less selfish side, I would address all family financial issues and pay for all maintenance in our block so body corporate meetings were all about wine and cheese instead of the usual hassles. And of course, a good ten mill for the CIS! Now how could that not make one happy? Clearly people who become miserable from money just don’t know how to spend and don’t deserve to get it.


  6. I’m not surprised that medium-sized prizes bring happiness as the British study found. This is sufficient to eliminate some of the stresses of the winners’ daily lives without being too disruptive.
    The anecdotal cases I have heard of lottery winnings bringing misery are always related to large prizes. I suspect that it could disrupt social and family networks due to jealousy and fighting over the winnings. Marriages may break up due to the belief that they can find better partners. Many winners may quit their jobs, which I suspect gives people more satisfaction and meaning to their lives than they realise. And winners may be disappointed if their money does not bring them the acceptance into new social networks they think they deserve.


  7. Son of the Ratpack – How do you spend $100 million quickly? I know it’s possible (buy an island, for example, or marry Ivana Trump). But the money would be earning about $100,000 per day (after tax). Brewster’s Millions!
    Raj – you could buy Cafe Di Stasio itself, and Fitzroy One and anything else that takes your fancy on Fitzroy Street (and still get the home delivery).


  8. But the money would be earning about $100,000 per day (after tax)

    But it not 100,000 per day. it would be more like 14K a day before tax or around 5 mill a year.

    It’s a lot of money , but quite honestly, these days it middling hyper rich, not hugely so.


  9. That sort of reminds me about Donald Trump and the first time he went under with the banks putting on a short leash.

    He was broke and the banks reduced his living expenses to $450,000 a month as a way of cutting down expenses 🙂


  10. If I won a squillion I certainly wouldn’t be wasting my time filling in some dopey survey for an academic on my happiness or wellness.


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