I used to have dreams of winning the Megamillions Lottery – real dreams, both spontaneous and deliberately incubated. Inspired by Russell Targ’s attempts to use ESP to predict the stock market’s direction, I even came up with my own system to help me select the numbers to play: I assembled a list of 56 different animals each corresponding to a different Lottery number. My reasoning went like this: my left brain doesn’t seem to have much access to extrasensory perception; perhaps if I paired up images of animals with numbers, my dreaming right brain could transcend time and space and send me dream pictures of jackalopes or unicorns representing the winning numbers. All I needed was two or three numbers sure to come up. Playing a mix of them in combination with other numbers would then significantly reduce the 175 million-to-0ne odds against winning this past Friday’s $166 million jackpot. The most I ever matched was four numbers. But I was sure the millions were coming and that they were going to make me very happy.

Joyless Nation

Then I started reading research on lottery winners. Turns out lottery winners aren’t very happy at all, and many take less pleasure in daily activities than do quadriplegics! That makes sense. If you didn’t have a neural network profile that would have allowed you to weather the stress necessary to actually earn millions of dollars, why would your brain suddenly allow you to bear the stress of being overwhelmed with overnight wealth? And stress – in the form of life circumstances our brains and bodies can’t readily handle – is a useful definition of unhappiness, one that goes a long way toward explaining why we are a nation of joyless lottery winners.

Derek Bok, the two-time president of Harvard, has some ideas about happiness and he has just written a book about it. One of his conclusions: money and material wealth, beyond the basic necessities, don’t greatly increase happiness. Bok isn’t the first person to come to that conclusion, of course. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.” Richard Friedman’s take on happiness and money though, is my favorite: “Money will buy you a fine dog, but only love can make it wag its tail.”

Treadmilling Through Life

One theory proposed decades ago by positive psychologists, Philip Brickman and Don Campbell to explain this state of general joylessness is the Hedonic Treadmill Hypothesis. Put simply, the brain quickly adapts to changes in circumstances and we lose whatever bursts of good (or bad) feelings initially came with those changes. Thus, the new, shiny car quickly becomes just a means of transportation, the big screen TV becomes a dust collecting medium for advertisers hawking their wares, or Apple’s new iPad quickly becomes a laptop without a keyboard.

Hedonism derives from the Greek word meaning “delight.” In research circles it’s a school of ethics which argues that the pleasures of life are the only intrinsic good. How do we keep our kids balanced in their pleasure-seeking and track them away from the Hedonic Treadmill? Simple, but not easy. Many of them get on it the same way we did: by seeing all the cool things their friends have and wanting to fit in. Is there a single teen today who doesn’t have the latest version of the coolest mobil phone? But most kids, by the time they’re teens, have experienced just how fast the fizz over new people, places and things wears off. They mostly need clever ways to be reminded of it – “how long do you think it will take before the buzz from the latest and greatest steampunked sports car on Trendhunter goes flat?

We can also make kids aware of Harvard professor Dan Gilbert’s research on happiness which, he discovered, we rarely have a good handle on. We mostly stumble upon it. We think we’re happier with variety and spice in our lives, but the actual research shows we prefer being offered the same thing over and over. We will pay a premium to keep our options open, but get great relief and contentment when we commit to a clear choice. We imagine great joy at something we long for coming to pass (like winning the Megamillions Lottery), but study after study shows the joy we obtain from getting a promotion or a college degree or a new car is short lived or pretty humdrum. Most of us would not sign our kids up for pursuing or living a humdrum life. In which case, we might want to find creative ways to lead them away from the Hedonic treadmill. Modeling a life of service is suggested by some.

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