Happiness Won’t Save You

Jennifer Senior in The New York Times:

More than 40 years ago, three psychologists published a study with the eccentric, mildly seductive title, “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” Even if you don’t think you know what it says, there’s a decent chance you do. It has seeped into TED talks, life-hack segments on morning shows, even the occasional whiff of movie dialogue. The paper is the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of happiness studies, a staple in any curriculum that looks at the psychology of human flourishing.

The study is straightforward. As the title suggests, the authors surveyed lottery winners and accident victims, plus a control group, hoping to compare their levels of happiness. But what the authors found violated common intuition. The victims, while less happy than the controls, still rated themselves above average in happiness, even though their accidents had recently rendered them all either paraplegic or quadriplegic. And the lottery winners were no happier than the controls, at least in any statistically meaningful sense. If anything, the warp and weft of their everyday lives was a little more threadbare. Talking to friends, hearing jokes, having breakfast — all of these simple pleasures now left them less satisfied than before.

There were flaws in the study — its design, alas, was as crude as an ax — but you can see why it became famous. It had an irresistible takeaway: Money! It doesn’t buy you happiness! Perhaps even more fundamentally, it had a sexy, almost absurd, premise. What kind of mind would think to pair lottery winners and accident victims in a research paper? Who in academic psychology had such a cockeyed imagination? It was social science by way of Samuel Beckett.

More here.