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.