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Money can't buy me love....
March 19, 2010 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Everybody Have Fun. 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. How happy had they been before these events? How about now? How about expectations for the future? These and other results have shown that hitting the jackpot fails to lift spirits along with a whole range of activities that people tend to think will make them happy (getting a raise, moving to California, or having kid). Is the United States a nation of joyless lottery winners? And are there implications for public policy decisions?
posted by bluesky43 (47 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is pretty unconvincing stuff:
Indeed, the average level of self-reported happiness, or “subjective well-being,” appears to have been flat going all the way back to the nineteen-fifties, when real per-capita income was less than half what it is today.
Per-capita income is a terrible metric to use hear. Real median income has been fairly stagnant, if not back to the 1950s than at least back to the 1970s; per-capita income growth is mostly due to incomes rising at the very top. So naturally most people are not going to be happier because Warren Buffett is richer.
It’s true, Bok acknowledges, that rich Americans tend, on average, to be happier than poor ones. It’s also true that the incomes of the country’s top earners have, in recent decades, grown several times as fast as those of the earners at the bottom. But the statistics show that, over the past few decades, the subjective well-being of those at the bottom has remained unchanged. If the poor aren’t bothered by the growing disparity, Bok asks, why should anyone else be?
What a blinkered interpretation of his data this guy's come up with. One could as easily argue: rich people are happier than poor people, but when they get even richer, it doesn't make them any happier. Consequently, that money would be better used to reduce the number of (unhappy) poor people than to increase the wealth of the same few rich people.
posted by enn at 8:31 AM on March 19, 2010 [19 favorites]


> Another is that people are relativists; they are interested not so much in having more stuff as in having more than those around them. Hence, if Jack and Joe both blow their year-end bonuses on Maseratis, nothing has really changed and neither is any more satisfied.

This, this, this, a thousand times this. Trying to stay ahead of your neighbor on the materialism treadmill is a failsafe way to ensure you're never quite satisfied with what you've got.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:31 AM on March 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Doesn't this all hinge on happiness being an objective measure that people can accurately label? When we ask people to rate how happy they are and we use that data, aren't we assuming that the person who claims to have a happiness level of 4 out of 5 (4/5) is actually measurably happier than the person who says 3/5? What if the lottery winners have a different vision of 5/5 happiness (maybe that moment when they were watching TV and realized they just won the lottery) than non-lottery winners, and so a lottery winner's 3/5 happiness level equals or even surpasses a non-lottery winner's 4/5 happiness level?

In other words, if people label their happiness in different ways for different reasons, why should we accept such a subjective measure as data?
posted by sallybrown at 8:32 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here, damn it.
posted by enn at 8:32 AM on March 19, 2010


In my opinion these studies only reaffirm what Epicurus had to say about happiness (1, 2, 3).

I've always been intrigued by Epicurus' idea of living with friends as the ultimate happiness, and if it could be done outside of a socialist Kibbutz or hippie commune. I don't think it is possible, or it would only be possible if the friends shared similar socio-economic status. The vagaries of wealth being what they are, it would be stressful seeing a friend get promoted and get rich for no apparent reason.
posted by geoff. at 8:33 AM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hey, let's go look at that tangent over there!

To narrow this discussion to my personal perception, I think this has a lot to do with why I enjoy living in New Orleans. So many people here have so little, and yet there's the "happy peasant" syndrome all over the place. Every day there is music, and every day there is astounding food, and every day there is this kind of weird celebration of the familiar and comforting. To be clear, I'm not trying to make a Katrina statement - this place was screwed up long before that storm hit. All I'm saying is that I like it here because there's not that constant scramble for the lottery, there's not as much of a blatant consumerist lifestyle as in, say, Orlando (sorry, best example I could think of).

Or maybe, you know, I'm needlessly or incorrectly romanticizing things. Maybe this is just my mindset and experience and NOLA fits me because I am lazy and not striving for that brass ring or waiting for that lotto windfall.
posted by komara at 8:33 AM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't know how accurate the study is, but I'm willing to be given several million dollars in order to find out how happy it makes me.

In the name of science, of course.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:35 AM on March 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Alternate theory: I'm conflating celebration and happiness.
posted by komara at 8:35 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I'll keep it short and sweet. Family, religion, friendship ... these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business."
posted by The Dryyyyy Cracker at 8:38 AM on March 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I tend to think that having my debts paid off will make me happier. Is that in the same category as winning the lottery?
posted by mecran01 at 8:42 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had a co-worker who won $500 from a scratch-off lottery card.

He acted as if, all of a sudden, the universe (I think he used "God") had decided to smile on him, and that, from there on in, his life was going to take a different, more uplifting tack. He started spending more, and quickly exceeded the $500, because, it seemed to me, more was coming. And, due to the math, it wasn't.

I think that would be the case for people, no matter how much they won. There was a This American Life episode about this also. Lottery winners very rarely end up happy.
posted by Danf at 8:45 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe money can't make you happy, but poverty can definitely make you miserable.
posted by Phanx at 8:49 AM on March 19, 2010 [13 favorites]


Everybody Have Fun

Alternate theory: Everybody Wang Chung.
posted by mattdidthat at 8:51 AM on March 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


"On an individual level, it’s possible to stop buying lottery tickets, move back to Minnesota,"

Ouch.

The other problem with associating income and happiness is that the scales don't match up. It's possibly for Bill Gates to be a million times richer than I am, but even if it's possible to for him to be a million times happier than I am, the test only allows him to rate his happiness on a (say) 1-10 scale.

And x10000 on enn's median/mean discussion above. Nothing pisses me off more than making this "mistake" (which I'm not convinced is innocent at all). I'm looking at *you*, people who make ludicrous claims about world poverty reduction based on Chinese per cap GDP growth.
posted by bonecrusher at 8:55 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


You can't win if you don't play.
posted by Sailormom at 8:55 AM on March 19, 2010


I find this subject pretty interesting. The books Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard and The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt are worth reading.

The linked article concentrates on public policy, which I'm a bit skeptical about: I think it's more useful for individuals.

The big thing is "hedonic adaptation". We expect that changes in our life will make big differences to our levels of happiness, but in fact we rapidly adapt to many changes.

As one example, Haidt points out that if we buy a bigger house, we rapidly adjust to it and find it makes us no happier. However we don't adjust easily to a longer commute: that keeps on making us miserable each time we do it. So moving to a large house further away from work is likely to make us less happy.

This VoxEU article has some interesting graphs taken from a very large set of data, showing how various life events (unemployment, marriage, divorce, widowhood, birth of child) affect happiness.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:01 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Godf(*#&$ingdammmit. Now I've got that #*$&(#)ing Wang Chung song in my head. I can objectively tell you that this makes me less happy.
posted by el_lupino at 9:08 AM on March 19, 2010 [8 favorites]


it would be stressful seeing a friend get promoted and get rich for no apparent reason

This one suspects is probably due to capitalism's pitting of workers against each other, so that the default mode in the U.S. (and maybe other Western countries) is to resent others' economic good fortune rather than to be happy for it. It's possible that children raised without this artificial indoctrinated sense of competition with the other worker bees might be able to cope with communal living, or at least this aspect of it. It's maybe worth noting that the examples you cite replace other ideologies -- the peace and love of the hippies, the national identity and shared religion on the kibbutz -- for the default capitalist mindset of U.S. citizens.
posted by aught at 9:12 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


What sallybrown said. "Hapiness" as an indicator, at least as human use it in self-assessment, seems to be the problem.

Ask yourself this: If you had a million, or ten million dollars, could you change things such that you enjoy how you spend your time more than you do now?

I've said it before and I'll say it again -- when a term appears on either side of an equation, you remove it. These sorts of studies, even when they're not misused by people looking to suggest that money actually results in unhappiness, suggest that money and happiness is unrelated. Ok, thanks for that. I'll take the long vacations to exotic places, nice meals, a work or hobby schedule according to desire rather than need, please. If none of that translates to "happiness", so be it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:13 AM on March 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


See also: culture jamming, and "exposing questionable political assumptions behind commercial culture so that people can momentarily consider the branded environment in which they live." In the (IMO) flawed Rebel Sell book talk, Joseph Heath talks about the "happiness plateau":
While economic development has been shown to generate a steady increase in average happiness levels, after a certain level of development has been reached, the effect disappears completely. The rule of thumb developed amongst economists, considering the subject, is that once GDP reaches about US 10,000 per capita, further economic growth generates no gains in average happiness. In North America, we hit that level long ago, so despite spectacular economic growth since the Second World War, there's been no overall increase in happiness. Some studies have even shown a decrease, in the United States in particular.
Once you sufficiently fulfill the needs and basic wants of your life, your next goal is the unattainable "more." Winning the lottery can be a curse, because suddenly you can fulfill all your dreams, except the summation of your dreams costs a lot more than you ever realized. Plus you get contacted by more family and friends that you never knew you had.

I've learned the method to being happy with massive lottery winnings from family friends who did just that. They were the one in a million who won a big cash-out, but they didn't tell anyone right away. They talked to financial experts first, then thought about their options. That weekend, they went on a snow trip with the boy scouts, helped my parents put chains on their car in the dark, and enjoyed their weekend. Over a few days or maybe a week, they figured out how to maximize their winnings in a conservative way, and finally claimed their winnings. They went for getting a couple hundred thousand dollars each year for 20 or 30 years instead of the lump sum, because you'd get more in the long run. They changed their phone number and got it unlisted, and bought land with a nice house and an orchard but didn't turn a profit on it, so they had a tax write-off of some sort. They had a small woodworking shop with a few employees, and they kept that but were able to get decent insurance for their employees and buy the building they were previously leasing for the shop. And they were able to pay for their son's college education with ease. The never got lavish, and they paced themselves. They figured out how much they needed in savings to live off of the interest earned and the additional annual pay-out from the lottery. I don't think they ever called it "a gift from god," and made their life (which was already pretty good by most standards) more comfortable.

Now all I need is a trick to win the lottery.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:25 AM on March 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


Not too surprised by this; aside from that TAL episode, I can remember an article in Chicago magazine titled something like "Pity the Poor Lottery Winner" in which they caught up with someone who had won the lottery when it was "just" $1 million, payable over 20 years in payments of $50,000. The sad thing was that this guy hadn't done any really egregious shit, but everything had turned out pretty badly anyway. He'd started his own pest control businesses, which, like most new businesses, failed; he bought a lakeside condo, which should have been a pretty safe investment, only to see a new building go up that blocked his view of the lake and made his condo plummet in value; he gave some of the money to family and friends, only to have those relationships sour because they wanted more money than he had or wanted to give.

My own lottery fantasies were at their most intense when I was really poor and doing whatever shit jobs I could to get by, and predictably centered around revenge and vindication, although not the really nasty type of revenge--mostly telling off the people who were helping me live out the lyrics of "Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out", the former friends who didn't have much to do with me when I didn't have money to play with and the relatives who never tired of telling me that I just had to try harder, without offering a whit of useful advice. I'd get a Mercedes and trick it out with the tackiest day-glo accessories that I could find; I'd never go out wearing anything but double-breasted pinstripe suits; I'd buy out every business that I'd put in job applications to and fire the person responsible for hiring in the most humiliating public fashion possible. I know that this is not terribly flattering, and the best that I can say is that it was a coping mechanism and I doubt that I would have gone through with it if I'd actually won. I tend to believe the research (no citations, sorry) that says that even positive developments in a person's life--promotions, raises or sudden windfalls, new relationships--can be just as stressful as the more negative ones, because you have all these lifestyle changes, adjustments in relationships and so on that you have to deal with, and those are changes that you were ready for and even working towards. What about having a few million dollars dumped suddenly (and usually very publicly) in your lap?

For further review: this post on Reddit and also this post that are from people claiming to have won the lottery (if they're faking then they're doing a really good job of it). Even for people that seem to be dealing with it very well, you get a sense that they're not really close to others in general (except for maybe a few relatives) because they're very cautious about being exploited.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:31 AM on March 19, 2010


Once you sufficiently fulfill the needs and basic wants of your life, your next goal is the unattainable "more." Winning the lottery can be a curse, because suddenly you can fulfill all your dreams, except the summation of your dreams costs a lot more than you ever realized.

I suspect this lies at the root of a lot of genuine unhappiness at sudden acceleration toward, or complete acquisition of, your goals -- it's that they weren't the answers to things you thought they were, and without the sudden windfall, you'd never have had the opportunity to test that. Hell, many people feel like that when they eventually reach goals, too, after much effort and time. I thought this was the answer. What now?

As you point out, flt, there are certainly ways in which an increases in resources can lead to improvements in how you go about getting more of the things you like in your life, and less of the things you don't. But the flashy JACKPOT WIN image doesn't generally play to that kind of expectation for the future.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:38 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was writing about the Singularity, but this seems to fit here too:
I find the argument that humans will find fulfillment in augmented intelligence entirely unconvincing. The problem is that fun and happiness are states, but life is a process. The reason we find pleasure even in a task like solving a Rubik's Cube is that completing the task changes us.

I saw this firsthand in my casino experiences; people who had become so skilled at card counting they could count down a table full of dealt cards without thinking found the play itself joyless and uninteresting. I sat with people who could barely contain their boredom while winning or losing tens of thousands of dollars an hour. Blackjack is a simple enough game that you can completely master it, and the spreadsheet back home had revealed that those spectacular wins and losses were never more than bumps on a reliably increasing trend. Winning the first million was a grand adventure, but winning the second is just a grind.
posted by localroger at 9:47 AM on March 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


this guy for this moment seems happy


Celebration: Bus driver Kevin Halstead and his new partner Josephine Jones
Bus driver Kevin Halstead wins £2m on lottery 4 months after divorce
posted by Postroad at 9:57 AM on March 19, 2010


I suspect this lies at the root of a lot of genuine unhappiness at sudden acceleration toward, or complete acquisition of, your goals -- it's that they weren't the answers to things you thought they were, and without the sudden windfall, you'd never have had the opportunity to test that.

I think there is a lot of insight in this statement.

People chase dreams of wealth because they think that the wealth is an end to itself, that being rich is the same as being happy (Books, TV, and movies have a lot to answer for here), but they completely miss that it just brings a new set of worries with it.

Personally, I'd like to believe that my happiness could be bought for the price of not having to work ever again and still maintain my fairly simple lifestyle. But even saying that, I know that with not working would come boredom, and with boredom would come the desire to do things that would, undoubtedly, cost more money, which would make me unhappy because that would be adding complexity.

Still, the only way to be sure that this would fail would be to give me enough money to test it for a few years. I'll happily accept donations for this project.
posted by quin at 10:07 AM on March 19, 2010


Ha, my lottery fantasies always included clearing up debt...mine and my in-laws, who are lovely people. Then building a house, very green and off the grid. Then travelling and staying in luxury hotels if I wanted to.

I might indeed become bored eventually, but jesus, there are an infinite number of worthy charities and causes out there to put my time and money into, and do something worthwhile. I can't imagine being swamped with ennui unless I couldn't dream bigger than just getting awesome new possessions and sitting on my ass.

As it is now, I agonize over all the causes I want to support but can't. This country's in crappy shape, I wouldn't mind having some cash to put towards changing that.

I do understand how you could lose friends, though. All our friends are busted-ass broke, I would need a lot of money to help them all, and it would definitely make things more awkward.
posted by emjaybee at 10:25 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


People chase dreams of wealth because they think that the wealth is an end to itself, that being rich is the same as being happy (Books, TV, and movies have a lot to answer for here), but they completely miss that it just brings a new set of worries with it.

Ah, I believe it was Aristotle (well, a Greek guy, my Google is failing), that stated having enough wealth to allow you the freedom do what you want to do is the best. Taleb makes a good point about this is and is more eloquent than I can be. The idea is not unique to him as I've heard it before, but it still rings true:
... hedonic treadmill. This idea stipulates that additional wealth leads to no long term gains owing to a reversion to a baseline. I agree with the reversion to a hedonic baseline. But if spending money does not make me happy, most certainly, having money stashed away, particularly f*** you money, makes me extremely happy, particularly compared to the dark years between the age of 20 and 25 when I was impoverished after having had an opulent childhood. There is something severely missing in the literature, the awareness of the idea best expressed in the old trader adage: the worst thing you could possibly do with money is spend it. Having no argumentative customers increases my life satisfaction. Not depending on other people’s subjective assessment increases my life satisfaction. Not being an inmate in some corporate structure increases my life satisfaction. Not doing some things increases my life satisfaction.
Further more ...
You cannot deal with Chance without talking about Happiness: events are not important in themselves; it is how they affect you that matters. It makes any theory of randomness inseparable from one of happiness. Happiness in many languages means “luck”. I was lecturing in Poland when, after stating the first sentence of this section, the audience was completely confused: randomness and happiness were translated into the same word! Indeed consider the fuzziness, in Germanic languages, between Glück (happiness) and its variations, like the English luck. In latin, felix initially meant lucky. Greek is more subtle (Eu-damon, makarios). But when I looked at Semitic languages : smh (sameach, Hebrew & Arabic) do not have anything directly to do with luck, rather some blessing from the God(s), like beatitude. Indeed of all the languages I looked at, Medieval (Classical) Arabic seems to have varieties: farah (eudamonic, from Semitic to blossom & grow), bast (hedonic), srour (felicity), the root wfc (mwaffac, in accordance with destiny) leads to luck, bhj (bahjat, ibthaj) is beatitude...
Alain de Botton also had quite a bit to say on this topic during his TED Talk. The only problem with this line of thinking, in my opinion, is that it requires a certain degree of intelligence and self-reflection that I don't think most people are capable of. This is sort of depressing, as given a chance to be happy, most people will waste it on impressing their peers and building temples to themselves.
posted by geoff. at 10:35 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I genuinely don't know if winning $10m could make me less happier. I've thought about it a bit and on balance it's a risk I'm willing to take.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:38 AM on March 19, 2010


There has been a lot of research into the types of people who even buy lottery tickets to begin with. Generally at the low end of the socioeconomic classes, generally pretty poor.

Devastating accidents can happen to literally anyone; winning the lottery is precluded to a rather smaller pool of people.

This is a crappy write up of a crappy, outdated "research" study with poor methods and controls.
posted by shownomercy at 10:41 AM on March 19, 2010


In my opinion, this paragraph is at the heart of the problem with this study.
"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’t. The buyers and the non-buyers exhibited no significant affective differences."
Lottery winners are not correctly matched to people who buy don't buy lottery tickets. Lottery winners tend to be people who buy large amounts of lottery tickets. Someone who buys 50 tickets a week (and such people exist) is a thousand times more likely to win than someone who buys two tickets per year. Someone who buys fifty tickets a week is also an unrealistic or compulsive person who probably does not get much joy out of life or the moment. The lottery selects for those who compulsively negate their present for an unlikely future payout.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:42 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


The vagaries of wealth being what they are, it would be stressful seeing a friend get promoted and get rich for no apparent reason.

"Whenever a friend succeeds a little something in me dies." --Gore Vidal.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:47 AM on March 19, 2010


In my experience the truest observation about happiness (I wish I could remember where I read it, so I could give credit), is that as long as people have the basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter, etc), people are happy when they feel things are getting better, unhappy when they feel things are getting worse, and meh/content/no particular emotion when things stay the same. In other words, it's an indicator of slope rather than absolute value. The first derivative, if you will.

f'(x) > 0 happy
f'(x) = 0 meh
f'(x) < 0 unhappy

where x = life in general

So you can be poor and happy, middle class and unhappy, or rich and meh. This is sort of a time-weighted trend thing - we all get brief bursts of happiness or sadness from random stuff we see or hear, but the trend averaged out over several days depends on how you see your life heading.

Beyond the basics, stuff doesn't make us happy in the long term, because it doesn't constantly make each day seem better than the last, day after day. Even very useful stuff gets integrated into our lives, we adjust to having it, and we plateau (and f'(x) = 0). My laptop is a thing of wonder, really, but now I'm used to it and take it for granted, and it doesn't make me happy any more even though I really appreciate having it. I'd be plenty unhappy if it broke, though - the hassle of repairing it and the loss of its function would definitely worsen my life for a few days (f'(x) < 0).

At least for me, this is the best explanation of why I feel happy or sad. I live a comfortable middle-class life surrounded by marvels of technology, yet I'm not often happy. Usually meh, but sometimes actually unhappy (with a good dose of guilt thrown in when considering how many people are less fortunate). When I stop and really analyze my mood, it's always based on that first derivative (except for PMS, but I can cope with that). There's always something that's getting better or worse, no matter how silly, that seems to drive my overall happy/unhappy mood. When nothing particular is changing, I'm just meh despite my breathtaking good fortune to be a middle-class citizen of the First World.
posted by Quietgal at 11:08 AM on March 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


I got a raise recently. It allowed me to finish paying off my car and accelerate paying off the mortgage such that I'll finish in the next couple of years. Plus my wife and I were both able to increase our personal "allowances" by 5x. That was a couple months ago. I'm still floating on air.
posted by DU at 11:19 AM on March 19, 2010


I've always been intrigued by Epicurus' idea of living with friends as the ultimate happiness.

Yeah, if you're an extrovert. [Shudders.]

Re money: the problem is that there are some really key things it can't buy, such as love and health. Sure, it can buy you much better medical care, but in the end, it can't cure your cancer. Maybe one day; not now.

I can think of some ways in which I would DEFINITELY be happier if I had more money. I would LOVE not to have to go to work. I have so many projects I'm dying to do, so many books I want to read, etc., and I don't have time because of fucking work. And I LIKE my job. I just know I'd be happier if I could support myself without it.

So think of me, winner of the lottery, never having to work again. I'm sitting at home, lounging on the sofa, painting pictures or re-reading "King Lear," ... and then my wife leaves me.

Now think of an impoverished guy whose wife leaves him. Maybe you can say he's more unhappy than me, because he's poor AND lonely. But if you quit keeping score, you realize that we're both pretty fucking miserable. (Please: I'm not saying that Bill Gates with cancer would be in the same boat as some guy in a ghetto with cancer. I'm just saying they'd both be upset.)

So it doesn't surprise me that there are unhappy rich people, especially if they stupidly expected that their money would solve all those problems in life that money can't touch.

It's always odd to me when people get offended by character-based movies in which the characters are rich, e.g. Woody Allen movies. There's a certain type of person who goes to see such a movie, in which the hero is depressed because his girlfriend left him, and says, "Fuck him! With all his money, he's complaining?"

Yeah, but it sucks to be abandoned, no matter where you are on the economic scale. When people say things like that, it makes me think they believe that if they won the lottery, they suddenly wouldn't care if someone they loved died or left them. Wrong.
posted by grumblebee at 11:19 AM on March 19, 2010


To narrow this discussion to my personal perception, I think this has a lot to do with why I enjoy living in New Orleans.

Lots of folk there live in houses their dads built/paid off, so they're not on the debt treadmill. That may be part of it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:27 AM on March 19, 2010


I think there is a lot of insight in this statement. People chase dreams of wealth because they think that the wealth is an end to itself...

Why limit the insight just to acquiring money? Isn't it true that any desire is destroyed once you fulfill it? The Shel Silverstein children's book The Missing Piece (youtube video) makes this point about romance fantasies, and I think people know this, if only unconsciously. We don't only fantasize about things we desire; we also create imagined obstacles that prevent us from getting the object of desire, so that we can enjoy the dream. Otherwise we'd be forced to go for it, and end up bursting the bubble when we find out reality isn't as great as the dream.

How often do you hear things like "If it weren't for my boss/wife/husband/kids/friends, things would be different, I'd really be able to be happy!" This is even problematic from a political standpoint, because on one hand, there's a lot of furious energy trying to change things, trying to overcome the obstacles or remove the limits to true enjoyment and yet nothing really changes. Maybe, unconsciously we don't want things to change, we want those limits to stand in our way, so that we can continue to dream that some real, authentic form of enjoyment that's better than what we have now is just around the corner.

A strange example: Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique argues that patriarchal attitudes limit women's authentic enjoyment, restricting them to the role of housewife and preventing them from the deep satisfaction of education and a career that men enjoy. And yet barely a year earlier, Richard Yates published Revolutionary Road, to make almost the exact opposite point, that the boredom and restrictions of the career world (and maybe we can also add, the academic world) is the fundamental limit that stands in the way of our true enjoyment.

I'm not at all saying that either Freidan or Yates are tricking us, only that this is how our culture understands all of life's projects. It's almost impossible to motivate anyone to do anything without resorting to this framework, and yet at the same time, the automatic association between fulfilling your desires and being truly happy is deeply misleading to us personally. Having overcome the limits of patriarchy and conformity to some extent (which, to be clear, I think are good things politically), new limits and obstacles are discovered that explain our continued failure to really enjoy ourselves.

Every part of our culture tells us we can be happy only if we reach our dreams (which can be anything from crass materialism to political goals to the heights of spiritual enlightenment), and yet the reality is that if we ever do reach our goals, the dream is destroyed, reality sets in and we're back to dissatisfaction and boredom, asking ourselves "What is it that I really want?"

What could be the solution? Definitely not some attempt to cure us of this disease, which would only end up repeating the same logic: "If only I could escape from the culture's demand that I make my dreams come true, I will be truly happy..." The Missing Piece suggests a far more interesting solution: the purpose of a dream is not to be fulfilled, but to provide a direction. The proper relationship to desire is that it's like driving in a car towards the moon--you can travel for thousands of miles, and yet the moon always appears the same size, the same distance away.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:42 AM on March 19, 2010 [14 favorites]


Would you be happier if you spent more time discussing the state of the world and the meaning of life — and less time talking about the weather?
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:46 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think the problem is, in part, that a lot of lottery winners think of their winnings as a big sum and not as an annuity, so they drive themselves into debt. Maybe they don't feel as rich once they realize it as an annuity or cash out for a lump sum because of bad habits they've had.

But how much did people win in the lottery in 1978? I didn't see that in the reading.

(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.)

This is really surprising. Does this take into account the current culture where women persistantly (possibly defensively) say how rewarding it is to have children and how much they love being a mom (not to be confused with how much they love their children, because obviously they do love them in a deep way)?
posted by anniecat at 12:16 PM on March 19, 2010


At least that's (the annuity thing) what I learned from the TAL episode on the lump sum industry.
posted by anniecat at 12:20 PM on March 19, 2010


But how much did people win in the lottery in 1978?

This only sort of corresponds to your question, but back in the 70s there were fewer state in the U.S. with lotteries. I saw a really great map of this once but I can't find it anywhere! Wikipedia says the first modern state-level lottery in mainland U.S. began in 1964 in New Hampshire. There wasn't even an interstate lottery (those have higher winnings) until the mid-1980s. I think a bunch of state lotteries opened in the 1970s, a lot more in the '80s-90s, and in the '00s a few holdouts caved in, and now the number of states without lotteries is in the single-digits.

(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.)

This is really surprising.


I agree! I mean, napping, okay. But jogging? Although it never actually says that a majority or even a large number of women find napping and jogging more pleasurable...just "studies have shown that women find..."
posted by sallybrown at 12:29 PM on March 19, 2010


Winning the lottery would allow me to pay for health care, so the fear of being laid off would be greatly reduced.

A lawyer I knew told me about a couple that won @1 million USD in the lottery. They set up a trust for the kids' educations, paid off the mortgage, bought new cars, and kept their mouths shut tight. I'd be happy to test that model to see if my lottery winnings make me hapier if they're well-managed, and hidden from shysters and family.
posted by theora55 at 1:07 PM on March 19, 2010


Why limit the insight just to acquiring money? Isn't it true that any desire is destroyed once you fulfill it?

I didn't intend it in that narrow sense, which is why after the quoted bit I mention that people report that feeling of dissatisfaction after having achieved goals that sometimes take a great deal of time and effort. So this isn't confined to windfalls of money; it's just a bit more stark against the fantasy backdrop of the cure-all lottery winning.

Again, though, when it comes to "happiness", we're fickle creatures. If I rated my level of happiness at this moment on some kind of psych scale, and it was rated again in five minutes after I'd re-watched this, I guarantee I'd be happier. That's how un-profound such a self-rating like that is. (And I mean genuinely happy -- a mood-lifter brings with it all kinds of optimism about other aspects of life, I find)

But I also think we're extremely poor at figuring out how to make decisions that bring with them long-term satisfaction. I'm still figuring it out.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:11 PM on March 19, 2010


Interestingly enough, last night I was forming a question in my mind to put on AskMe: Are there documented examples (I can read about) of North American lottery winners (or, if that's too limiting, large-value heirs who were not previously wealthy) going traveling in developing nations, finding people who really need help and dedicating their lives and lottery winnings to making a difference?

Anyone know of any?
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 1:29 PM on March 19, 2010


According to this TED talk, happiness is about deciding to be happy.
posted by Pangloss at 1:44 PM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, it seems to me that if you've never had much money and suddenly have a lot of it, you probably don't know a lot about handling money. You're more likely to be taken in by people who would abuse that lack of knowledge. You don't know all the various financial instruments, your instinct isn't to go talk to a couple financial planners and so on.

Maybe I'm wrong. But non-lottery rich people usually either got it over time (and thus learned about the Wide World of Finance along the way) or were born with it (in which case their parents probably taught them this stuff).
posted by wildcrdj at 2:54 PM on March 19, 2010


"Money doesn't make you happy. I now have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million. "

Arnold Schwarzenegger
posted by yoyo_nyc at 4:28 PM on March 19, 2010


My whole life -- but especially lately -- I've been deeply concerned by some of these questions.

Beyond the basics, stuff doesn't make us happy in the long term, because it doesn't constantly make each day seem better than the last, day after day. Even very useful stuff gets integrated into our lives, we adjust to having it, and we plateau (and f'(x) = 0). My laptop is a thing of wonder, really, but now I'm used to it and take it for granted, and it doesn't make me happy any more even though I really appreciate having it.

I find that I can continue to get enjoyment out of things for a long time, or even forever, by reminding myself how amazing they are every time I use them. I have owned various MP3 players and used them a lot for almost a decade, and I don't think there's ever been a time I haven't felt excited to turn one on, even though I do it every day. This strategy of actively not taking stuff for granted has always worked awesomely well for me, but I have a weird brain and I like routines a lot. Your mileage may vary.

I think the happiest society would be one in which every individual is born poor and then guaranteed a gradual rise in living standards throughout life, so as to really get that first derivative going. Our current society is a pretty lousy approximation of this, especially given how well-off most of us start out. I guess this would be hard to pull off in practice.

Also, I know it seems like another obvious solution is to work toward goals you can never actually reach or get closer to, thus ensuring your eternal happiness, but doesn't anyone besides me find something really disturbing about that scheme? The idea of creating meaningless work for everyone, keeping everyone in a pointless "illusory progress bubble" like that -- it kind of strikes me as a form of the brain-in-the-jar scenario. It's like drugs, in a way. Sure, you're happy, but it's fake. It's meaningless. I don't just want to be happy. I want to be deservedly happy.

I like the idea of a society that keeps creating new concepts of things it wants to achieve, and works toward those. You can never run out of goals to set, really. Even if humanity is eventually just a hive-mind (I doubt this will happen, but who knows?) you can never run out of ideas to explore or new conceptual structures to create. There will always be another game to play. Mathematics, for example, is infinitely complex.
posted by Xezlec at 9:14 PM on March 19, 2010


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