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Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?

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Adaptation level theory suggests that both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning. Study 1 compared a sample of 22 major lottery winners with 22 controls and also with a group of 29 paralyzed accident victims who had been interviewed previously. As predicted, lottery winners were not happier than controls and took significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events. Study 2 indicated that these effects were not due to preexisting differences between people who buy or do not buy lottery tickets or between interviews that made or did not make the lottery salient. Paraplegics also demonstrated a contrast effect, not by enhancing minor pleasures but by idealizing their past, which did not help their present happiness.
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Journal
of
Personality
and
Social Psychology
1978, Vol.
36, No. 8,
917-927
Lottery
Winners
and
Accident
Victims:
Is
Happiness
Relative?
Philip
Brickman
and Dan
Coates
Northwestern
University
Ronnie
Janoff-Bulman
University
of
Massachusetts
Adaptation
level
theory
suggests
that
both
contrast
and
habituation
will
operate
to
prevent
the
winning
of a
fortune from
elevating
happiness
as
much
as
might
be
expected.
Contrast
with
the
peak
experience
of
winning should
lessen
the
impact
of
ordinary
pleasures,
while
habituation
should
eventually
reduce
the
value
of new
pleasures
made
possible
by
winning.
Study
1
compared
a
sample
of
22
major
lottery
winners
with
22
controls
and
also
with
a
group
of 29
paralyzed
accident
victims
who had
been
interviewed
previously.
As
predicted,
lottery
winners
were
not
happier
than
controls
and
took significantly
less
pleasure from
a
series
of
mundane
events.
Study
2
indicated
that
these
effects
were
not due to
preexisting
differences
between
people
who buy or do not buy
lottery
tickets
or
between
interviews
that
made
or did not
make
the
lottery
salient.
Paraplegics
also
demonstrated
a
contrast
effect,
not by
enhancing minor
pleasures
but by
idealizing
their
past,
which
did not
help
their
present
happiness.
Is
Happiness Relative?
The
idea that happiness
is
relative
is at
least
as old as the
Stoic
and
Epicurean phi-
losophers
of
ancient Greece.
It is
also
a
solu-
tion
to a
number
of
intriguing puzzles
in
modern social
science.
American
soldiers
in
World
War II
with
a
high school education
or
better
had
greater chances
of
being pro-
moted
but
were less happy with their
promo-
We
wish
to
thank
the
following
students
who
pro-
vided
valuable assistance
in
collecting
data
for the
first
study:
Debbie
Ahner,
Lowry
Alexander, Mary
Jo
Barrett,
Daryl
Brandford, Dana Day,
Pat
Dennis,
Susan Froikin, Frederick Garnett, Dana
Gimbel,
Rick
Grossman, Elizabeth
Guthridge,
Jim
Howard,
Bob
Hoyt,
Aaron
Janis,
Janine
Kushner,
Leslie
Levin,
Rodney Martin,
Dawson
Moorer,
Patti
Riedle,
Wendie Rose, Yamima Rubens, Eric Tep-
litz,
and
Eileen Wise.
We are
also
grateful
to
Col-
leen
Dudgeon, Dorothy Echols, Steve Rosenthal,
Ira
Shapiro,
Kurt Walsh,
and
Rhonda Welfare
for
their
help
with
the
follow-up study. Finally,
we
wish
to
thank
Ralph Batch, Illinois State Lottery Superin-
tendent,
and
Dennis Stone, Vice-President
of
Her-
bert
H.
Rozoff
Associates,
for
their
friendly coop-
eration.
Requests
for
reprints should
be
sent
to
Philip
Brickman,
Department
of
Psychology,
Northwestern
University, Evanston,
Illinois
60201.
tion chances. Merton
and
Kitt
(19SO)
evolved
the
notion
of
relative deprivation
to
explain
this
fact,
among
others.
The
better
educated
soldiers
saw
themselves
as
doing poorly com-
pared
to
their peers
in
civilian
life
or
their
peers
who
were already
officers.
Less
well
educated soldiers,
on the
other
hand,
saw
themselves
as
reasonably well
off
compared
to
similar others
in
civilian
life
or
their peers
in
the
service. Individuals
in an
experimental
group
that
was
objectively worse off, because
one
member
was
disadvantaged, were more
satisfied
than individuals
in a
group where
everyone
was
equal
or
where
one
member
was
advantaged. Brickman
(1975)
predicted this
result
from
the
fact
that
in the first
case,
individuals would enhance
the
relative value
of
their
own
outcome
by
comparing
it
with
the
less fortunate other, whereas
in the
latter
two
cases, there would
be no
such compari-
son to
elevate
their
appreciation
of