Hunting for Happiness? Start Small

Little everyday pleasures and joyful friends can have a bigger impact on our long-term happiness than the spectacular life achievements we usually chase.

Imagine that someone walked up to you on the street and asked you whether winning the lottery would improve your long-term happiness. What would you say?

Most of us would probably assume there was no question about it: we’d be walking on clouds. A positive event of this magnitude must improve our well-being.

Researchers looking at this exact phenomenon in a pioneering study in 1978 found that folks who won the lottery did show higher levels of reported happiness right after they won. But they also found that the feeling was short lived, or at least not as intense as one might expect. Another study looked at Dutch households that won a lottery prize of cash and a BMW (based on their postal code “winning the draw”) and found that they weren’t astronomically happier after 6 months compared to their neighbors who didn’t win.

Winning the lottery can also have an interesting influence on how much we enjoy small daily pleasures. The researchers conducting the 1978 study compared three groups of people: lottery winners, a non-lottery-winner control group, and accident victims who had sustained serious injuries that left them partially or fully paralyzed. When asked to rate their enjoyment of what the researchers called “everyday pleasures,” like receiving compliments, speaking with a friend, and hearing a funny joke, the group of lottery winners reported less enjoyment than both controls and accident victims. (Even though they reported feeling very good about winning the lottery.)

The researchers acknowledged limitations of the study — for example, a broader time horizon would be more revealing — but they also proposed two interesting explanations for this phenomenon. They’re called “contrast” and “habituation,” from a theory called Adaptation Level Theory. Contrast explains the idea that ordinary pleasures simply can’t match up to the amazing experience of winning the lottery. And with habituation, lottery winners become accustomed to all the new pleasures that were made possible by their newfound riches. What was once a thrill is now boring.

It also turns out that humans are especially bad at predicting what we will feel in response to an event, which psychologists call affective forecasting. We’re pretty skilled at knowing which events will make us feel good or bad, in general. (A spoonful of chocolate chip ice cream or chicken soup ice cream? That’s an easy one for most of us). But we overestimate how much they affect us. In general, we tend to assume that if something good happens, we’ll feel better about it than we actually will, and if something bad happens, we’ll feel worse, and for a longer time.

As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert explains, “From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test … have far less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have.”

This all may seem a little disappointing. If a grandiose positive event like winning the lottery can’t improve our happiness in the long term, what can? Research on well-being actually has some uplifting ideas.

According to Ed Diener, a prominent happiness researcher, happiness isn’t just about having one or two intensely good things happen to us. It’s more related to the frequency of positive events in our lives, however small. Most of us aren’t going to win the lottery, or a Pulitzer prize, or become CEO of a multi-million-dollar company. But frequent, small, positive things do happen to many of us day-to-day, and those modest occurrences may be more effective in improving our overall well-being.

Another consideration is that our contentment has to do a lot with who we surround ourselves with. A study from the University of Illinois, aptly named “Very Happy People,” found that the necessary characteristic of the top 10% of self-rated happy people was their social lives. “The very happy people were highly social, and had stronger romantic and other social relationships than less happy groups,” write the authors. They spent less time alone than both the averagely-happy and the unhappy groups and described their social relationships as rich and satisfying.

And in particular, we may benefit from spending time with other happy people.

Happiness within a social network seems to be contagious, according to a large study conducted by researchers at Harvard. The study followed a group of over 4,700 individuals and found that happiness can “ripple” through a social network. People who were friends with other happy people were more likely to be happy themselves, with the effects spreading up to three degrees of separation. They suggested that happiness may be a property of groups of people, not just a function of the individual, and if your friend’s friends are happy, it can bounce all the way back to you.

So what’s the best course of action if you want to boost your long-term sense of well-being? Surround yourself with a bunch of cheerful pals and try to focus on the small positive events that happen frequently: hearing a song you like, eating a particularly delicious slice of pie, or getting coffee with friend.

Oh, and don’t buy too many lottery tickets.