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  • Reverend James Squire

Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Photo by Waldemar Brandt

The title above is the title of a study done in 1978 by Brickman et al regarding the steady nature of happiness regardless of the ups and downs of life. In addition, the researcher, Sonja Lyubomirsky discovered that every one of us has a “happiness set point” that is based in genetics. It makes up 50% of our happiness. In addition, 10% of our happiness is derived from something outside of ourselves such as where we were born. That means that 40% of our happiness can be determined by us and makes a key difference in how happy we are in life.

Our Declaration of Independence declares that we should fill our lives with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There is another aspect of happiness that we need to be aware of to live out the words of our founding fathers. It is the Hedonic Affect or Hedonic Treadmill for you seem to return to where you began. Researchers have discovered that winners of the lottery have an initial burst of happiness and joy but after a relatively short period of time they return to the happiness level that they had before winning. Likewise, people who have had tragic accidents and who are in wheelchairs for life return to the same level of happiness before the accident.

This is a result of habituation where you get use to both the good and bad news. A simple example of habituation is when we eat ice cream. It is really the first spoonful of the ice cream that we really taste and enjoy, and the rest becomes like it. Another example is buying a loud ticking clock. You notice the ticking in the beginning, but then after a period of time you don’t notice the sound.

I remember when Joe Flacco, then quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, signed a contract for 120 million dollars. After the signing, he went and had lunch at the local McDonalds. He was asked why he didn’t change much of his life with all the money he received. His response was, “Why do I need a Porsche? I am fine with what I have.” He was interviewed six months after he signed the contract, and he reflected that he had the same level of happiness that he had before he signed.

We see teams win a championship, and the players proclaim: “I am going to Disney World.” It is nothing exotic. It is something that many people could do.

How does the Hedonic Affect and Habituation relate to the Pandemic and Black Lives Matter. I would anticipate that when we reach some level of closure on both of these phenomena, that there would be a gradual return to our previous state of happiness. It may become like a distant memory or could revert to a form of post traumatic syndrome. We haven’t seen anything comparable to either event recently so there is no way to make a judgement. However, it will be interesting to see what researchers discover when it reaches some level of closure.

It is clear that we have a level of habituation caused by these two phenomena where, for some, each day feels to be the same as the previous one. It reminds me of the movie, Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character is a cynical weatherman who goes to Punxsutawney to see if the groundhog sees his shadow. He keeps living February 2 over and over.

Habituation was necessary to move through these times. We know that we have been here before and can make it to the day after today. Alzheimer’s disease which has habituation at its core in the extreme is a devastating illness. A physician friend whose wife has this disease said to me recently, “I now have to introduce myself to her each day when we awake.”

That is why we need some form of closure on these two issues that dominate our lives. We don’t want to relive this nightmare of extreme challenge.

We need to be able to live with new hope and reclaim the happiness that so many of us can remember as a distant moment. The Hedonic Effect says that the possibility is there.

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