In college, I had a brilliant psychology professor who never ceased to challenge us. One day he made each of us answer a series of questions that went something like this:
Professor: Why are you here?
Students: To learn.
Students: So we can graduate.
Student: So we can get the job of our dreams.
Professor: Why do you want your dream job?
Students: Because it will make me happy.
Professor: Why do you want to be happy?
... crickets ...
The question stumped all of us. That's because the answer simply doesn't exist; and therein lies the point our professor was trying to make. One does not need a reason to be happy; there is no hierarchy to happiness.
The most referenced study on the subject was published in 1978, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers interviewed two groups of people: lottery winners and victims of terrible accidents that left them disabled. In short, scientists found that happiness levels did not remain high after winning a significant amount of money. In fact, happiness slipped back to pre-winning levels within a few short months. Victims of accidents reported being closer to their happiness levels pre-accident, or slightly less unhappy.
Wednesday's lucky — or unlucky — Powerball winner should know that happiness is by no means assured. And if happiness levels do spike, they will undoubtedly plateau, or spiral down, within six months. Why you ask? The reasons have little to do with the money, and much to do with the psychology of happiness. See, whether you end up a multi-millionaire for life or lose all your winnings and become homeless within the first year of winning the lottery is already predetermined — by your disposition. In short, are you a negative Nancy or a positive Pete? Being a generally happy person prior to winning will not significantly change your outlook on life, and self-confidence and ambition would urge you into carefully strategizing your financial future. But being a generally unhappy and depressed person could land you in trouble with all those Benjamins, especially if you've no sense of managing finances and a slew of bad habits ( drinking, gambling, etc.) you hadn't kicked.
Why do happiness levels plateau? It's no different than opening presents on Christmas morning, or buying a new vehicle. Humans are infatuated with new things — and instant gratification is to blame. However, the surge of inner happiness can only last so long before we normalize the event, adjust to the 'new' things, and before we know it, they're old news.
Even though there was virtually no chance of you winning (as proven by the single winning ticket sold in Massachusetts), we all fall victim to the 'availability bias,' a term used to explain overestimating the likelihood of an event happening, based on how strong our memories of that event are. Besides, Wednesday's Powerball had climbed to $700 million, the second-largest prize in lottery jackpot history, which is only $699,925,000 more than the theoretical perfect salary for happiness: $75,000.