You don’t know what will make you happy
Wouldn’t life be much better if you won the lotto? You’d go down to the lottery shop to pick up your oversized ten-million-dollar cheque, then sweep the confetti from your hair and swing by the local bling-chain store.
Or whatever it is you’ve always dreamed of owning — personally, I think I’d be happier with a gold toilet, but you can pick your poison. So when you’re sitting in your mansion surrounded by everything you’ve always wanted, would you be happy forever after?
In fact, a year after winning the lotto, you’d be about as happy as you were before.
Psychologists discovered this by comparing the ‘happiness ratings’ of people who had won more than $50,000 (some won $1,000,000) with the general public. Getting all that money is kinda like typing ‘motherload’ into Sims.
After a while with so much money, the game becomes kind of pointless, and you just sit there staring at your gold toilet. Your Sim still has to do boring things like poop, and it kind of gets used to doing it in a gold toilet — turns out it’s not so different from before. You’d get used to a life of lotto luxury too, and be about as happy as before.
Psychologists found the same is true for your grades on the most important test of the year.
They asked university students to predict how happy they would feel right after discovering they got a grade that was much higher compared to much lower than they expected.
The average person thought their mood would be walking on sunshine at 8 if the grade was higher than expected, and a sad old 4 if it was lower. It turns out that in reality, when they received the grade there was very little difference — 6.55 for higher than expected and 6.36 for lower. No matter each grade you get, you’ll be just as happy as you were, whether you flop or get every question correct.
It seems like we can get used to the bad stuff that happens to us too.
An experiment compared happiness levels of lottery winners with people that had suffered a serious accident. They found that, while the lottery winners were happier, it wasn’t by as much as you’d expect — only about one point on a five-point scale (2.96 vs. 4.00). Another experiment found that about four years after their accidents, most people had returned to the level of happiness they were at before their accidents.
Basically, we get used to stuff we used to think would be the best stuff or thing ever — or the worst.
This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation. We’ve looked at some pretty far-out examples — but you’ll find that hedonic adaptation is affecting your happiness all the time.
If you’re busy freaking out about which university residential hall to apply for, worry no more.
Scientist Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues found that people dramatically overestimate the importance of what hall you get into on your happiness.
Harvard students, who she used in her experiment, might be smart but they’re also bad at predicting their happiness. When asked to predict how happy they’d be in a hall they wanted compared to a hall they really didn’t, they thought there’d be a huge difference to how happy they were. A year later, when they were living in the halls, there was hardly a difference.
Things that we believe will strongly affect our happiness levels hardly change how we feel at all. Similar experiments show this is true for the things we crave most in life: a good job, the most on-trend stuff, true love and a hot bod.
Our Wednesday Wellbeing column will be busting the myths of happiness and health every fortnight. Until then, you can catch us on facebook and instagram or browse more articles in our advice section.
Studies in the order mentioned:
Brickman et al. (1978), Levin et al. (2012), Brickman et al. (1978), Boyce and Wood (2011), Dunn et al. (2003).