Happiness Equilibrium

Which would make you happier:  winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed? way-to-happiness-01-af 

Stupid question, right?

In a two-part study published in 1978, Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman compared lottery winners’  levels of happiness to a control group. They did the same for a group of paraplegics. 

One year after the event—either winning a lottery or becoming paralyzed—all three groups reported the same degree of happiness.

How Can This Be?

Happiness seeks equilibrium.  When you’re poor, you find happiness in little things: a sunset, a child’s report card, catching a fish, watching puppies play. Win a million dollars a year for life, though, and those little things seem mundane. A new BMW, which was once a pipe dream, is now six-months old and feeling . . . well, old.  Expensive clothes and exotic vacations become the norm. Quit your job and you also lose a sense of accomplishment.

Contrast that with the paraplegic.  Reduced mobility eventually breeds appreciation for what’s here right now. The paraplegic becomes grateful what wasn’t lost—memories, family, friends, the way the cat moves across the deck when he thinks no one’s watching.

The Pursuit of Happiness Drives Progress

So why do we strive for happiness? Because “we are wired to pursue happiness,” according to Nancy Etcoff, a positive psychology researcher at Harvard. This pursuit provides little, temporary bits of happiness. That drives us to work harder.  In the process, we learn that by making others happier, we tend to earn more happiness ourselves. This social aspect to happiness drive community building. 


And by “work harder,” I don’t necessarily mean at the office.  Mother Teresa worked harder at her pursuit of happiness.  Parents learn that spending more time with their children enriches both lives.  Writers write; readers read. Both get bits of happiness from the book.

Why Is This Important?

I can think of two reasons why it’s important to understand that happiness naturally tends toward an equilibrium. 

First, this knowledge teaches us that it’s good to pursue happiness. It makes nihilism infeasible and unjustifiable.The fact that we can earn bits of happiness by pursuing happiness is fantastic news. In short it means that living works.  Keep doing it.

Second, it allows us to take risks.  If happiness were an absolute, then we’d be foolish to gamble whatever happiness we now have.  One mistake would mean a permanent loss of happiness.  But that’s not the case. Even if we suffer huge setbacks like paralysis, we can still achieve happiness—the same degree as if we’d won the lottery.  This news allows us to live more robust lives.

What are you doing to pursue happiness? How will this news help you overcome some fear and try something new?