15 Mar What can policy makers learn from happiness research?
Everybody Have Fun – What can policymakers learn from happiness research?
by Elizabeth Kolbert
In 1978, a trio of psychologists curious about happiness assembled two groups of subjects. In the first were winners of the Illinois state lottery. These men and women had received jackpots of between fifty thousand and a million dollars. In the second group were victims of devastating accidents. Some had been left paralyzed from the waist down. For the others, paralysis started at the neck.
The researchers asked the members of both groups a battery of questions about their lives. On a scale of _ã–the best and worst things that could happen,_ã how did the members of the first group rank becoming rich and the second wheelchair-bound? How happy had they been before these events? How about now? How happy did they expect to be in a couple of years? How much pleasure did they take in daily experiences such as talking with a friend, hearing a joke, or reading a magazine? (The lottery winners were also asked how much they enjoyed buying clothes, a question that was omitted in the case of the quadriplegics.) For a control, the psychologists assembled a third group, made up of Illinois residents selected at random from the phone book.
When the psychologists tabulated the answers, they found that the lottery group rated winning as a highly positive experience and the accident group ranked victimhood as a negative one. Clearly, the winners realized that they_ã_d been fortunate. But this only made the subsequent results more puzzling. The winners considered themselves no happier at the time of the interviews than the members of the control group did. In the future, the winners expected to become slightly happier, but, once again, no more so than the control-group members. (Even the accident victims expected to be happier than the lottery winners within a few years.) Meanwhile, the winners took significantly less pleasure in daily activities_ã”including clothes-buying_ã”than the members of the other two groups.
Perhaps, the psychologists hypothesized, people who buy lottery tickets tend to be melancholy to begin with, and this had skewed the results. They randomly selected another group of Illinoisans, some of whom had bought lottery tickets in the past and some of whom hadn_ã_t. The buyers and the non-buyers exhibited no significant affective differences. The members of this new panel, too, rated themselves just as happy as the lottery winners, and reported getting more pleasure from their daily lives.
The researchers wrote up their findings on the lottery winners and the accident victims in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper is now considered one of the founding texts of happiness studies, a field that has yielded some surprisingly morose results. It_ã_s not just hitting the jackpot that fails to lift spirits; a whole range of activities that people tend to think will make them happy_ã”getting a raise, moving to California, having kids_ã”do not, it turns out, have that effect. (Studies have shown that women find caring for their children less pleasurable than napping or jogging and only slightly more satisfying than doing the dishes.) As the happiness researchers Tim Wilson and Daniel Gilbert have put it, _ã–People routinely mispredict how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring._ã