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Winning the Lottery or A Car Accident: Which Makes You Happier?

The Mega Millions lottery, the second largest lottery in the United States, had its latest drawing earlier today, with an estimated grand prize of $26 million. No tickets with all six winning numbers were sold, however, pushing the value of the next drawing, on Friday, to $35 million. While $35 million may sound like a lot is a lot of money, it is hardly a large jackpot by Mega Millions standards; three times, the grand prize has reached a nominal value of over $300 million. But, to tweak an old question, can a lottery buy you happiness?

No, according to a classic study by Philip Brickman and Dan Coates of Northwestern University (no, not that Dan Coats), and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman of the University of Massachusetts. Brickman and co. compared the happiness of 22 lottery winners with a control group of 22 people and another group of 29 car accident victims (all paraplegics or quadriplegics). They asked the three groups to rate their general happiness in the past, present, and future, as well as their enjoyment of several everyday pleasures, such getting compliments, talking with a friend, and, um, eating breakfast. The authors found that "lottery winners felt very good about winning the lottery" (this month's winning entry for the Medal of Excellence in the Field of Understatement), but overall were no more generally happy than the control group. Accident victims reported much lower happiness in the present, but similar ratings of expected future happiness and "strong nostalgia" for their past. As for everyday pleasures, lottery winners reported less enjoyment of them than either the control group or the victims. Brickman et. al. suggest a "positive contrast effect" for both groups: for the lottery winners, the joy of winning the lottery diminished more mundane occurrences, cancelling out the positive effects of winning. For the accident victims, nostalgia for the pre-accident past diminished their general happiness in the present, but it also made "the ordinary events of their past...more positive for them," again countering the negatives.

Not that any of this is particularly useful everyday info: the chances of a ticket matching all six numbers, according to Mega Millions/the laws of mathematics, is 1 in 175,711,536. Good luck!