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January 18, 2016
by Megan Lundgren, LMFT

The Pursuit of Happiness: Would Winning the Lottery Make You Happier?

January 18, 2016 14:42 by Megan Lundgren, LMFT

For those who gambled their hard-earned money, one big question must be asked:

Is winning the lottery really the key to happiness?  

The short answer? No. Here’s why.

A famed 1978 study by Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman at NorthWestern University and the University of Massachusetts indicated that people who win the lottery immediately experience a surge in happiness, yet soon experience a gradual return to their previous happiness homeostasis.  Lottery winners evidently drifted back to the same level of happiness that they experienced before their lottery win because of a phenomenon called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. According to the researchers, “the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off” as the winners become accustomed to the pleasures made possible by their new wealth.  

Perhaps even more shocking than the finding that happiness isn’t a guarantee when winning the lottery is the study’s second finding: that when measuring the happiness levels of individuals who had experienced a significant trauma in their life (becoming a quadriplegic), happiness levels significantly decreased immediately after the accident, but nearly balanced to their previous pre-accident levels of happiness shortly thereafter. Major life events such as winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed may have relatively little impact on a person’s overall happiness throughout their lifetime. 

So, what could possibly be better than the lottery than increasing a person’s happiness? 

As it turns out, the answer is community. 

Close relationships are both powerful and consistent in their ability to increase positive feelings. When individuals derive happiness from close relationships (rather than from winning a massive monetary prize), they are more likely to continue to derive happiness from their relationships on an ongoing basis.  In a 2002 study by positive psychology pioneers Edward Diener and Martin Seligman at the University of Illinois, the most salient characteristics shared by the students with the highest levels of happiness were strong ties to family and friends, and commitment to spending time with them.  "Word needs to be spread," writes Diener, "It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties and social support in order to be happy."

Why are social relationships so significant to happiness? Communities provide a sense of identity and purpose: belonging to a group may help individuals to understand who they are, and allow them to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves. As a result of the happiness boost that occurs when social relationships are strong, individuals who develop strong social connections experience fewer physical ailments, fewer mental health diagnoses, and increased resilience from trauma or illness. 

Psychologist James H. Fowler analyzed data of 5,000 individuals over a 20 year span, and found that happiness has a contagious effect. In Fowler’s study, individuals who were happy not only impacted the happiness levels of their friends, but also positively impacted the happiness of their friends’ friends. So, if happiness results from social relationships, and social relationships spread feelings of happiness throughout communities, why wouldn’t individuals increase their social involvement to take advantage of this positive happiness cycle? 

Unfortunately, mental illness promotes its own cycle of unhappiness. Individuals who are anxious or depressed are more likely to socially isolate themselves, resulting in increased anxiety and depression. Often, individuals with mental illness experience feelings of vulnerability and shame around their symptoms or diagnoses, which further fuels their reluctance to engage in social relationships.

However, what happens when depressed or anxious individuals resist the urge to socially isolate, and instead bravely express their feelings to others? A 2012 study from Stanford by Katharina Kircanski, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Michelle G. Craske indicates that verbally expressing vulnerable feelings may help individuals more quickly feel less anxious or depressed. 

Popular author, speaker, and sociological researcher, Brene Brown, explains that vulnerably disclosing sensitive information, such as feelings of anxiety and depression, may result in individuals been more well-liked. “We are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth,” says Brown. “We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.” Brown suggests that when a person is honest and vulnerable, it gives others the space and permission to be the same – thus improving social bonding and often increasing feelings of happiness in both the individual and their peers. Rather than burdening others with their true feelings, individuals with mental health challenges may open doors for valued relationships within their community. 

For those who spend a few dollars on lottery tickets this month, perhaps consider saving your money for coffee with a friend next time - it may be more powerful than those winning numbers. 


Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (n.d.). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 917-927. 

Brown, C. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden. 

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (n.d.). Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being. Social Indicators Research Series The Science of Well-Being, 201-265.

 Fowler, J., & Christakis, N. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. Bmj. 

Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M., & Craske, M. (2012). Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy. Psychological Science, 1086-1091. 

About the Author

Megan Lundgren Megan Lundgren, LMFT

What brings you here today? If you are seeking therapy in hope of a warm, safe environment to talk openly about your closest relationships - you will find that here. All are welcome.

Megan Lundgren has a clinical practice in Monrovia, CA

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