“Happiness is a journey, not a destination. For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one.” – Daniel Souza
Last month millions of Americans played the multistate lottery, Powerball. People stood in line, sometimes for hours, in an attempt to gain happiness through a huge financial windfall resulting from matching the five white balls and one red “Powerball.” You probably heard, or even uttered yourself, some variation of an if-then statement: “If I hit the lottery, then I’d be happy.” Everyone who plays has some kind of story that they tell about how wonderful it would be if they won and how they would appropriately use that money to purchase happiness for themselves, their friends, and unknown destitute individuals that they would help in a philanthropic manner. As they say in many states, “Play the lottery, the game dreams are made of.”
Unfortunately for most people. even the winners, becoming an instant millionaire not only does not result in happiness but, in many cases, actually creates even more misery than they had before. 44% of those who have ever won large lottery prizes were broke within five years, according to a 2015 Camelot Group study. The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards says nearly a third declared bankruptcy – meaning they were worse off than before they became rich. Other studies show that lottery winners frequently become estranged from family and friends, and incur a greater incidence of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, and suicide than the average American.
This phenomenon is not unique to lottery winners alone. Celebrities and professional athletes often succumb to the same temptation that comes with overnight wealth. 78% of NFL players file bankruptcy or are in other financial trouble within two years of retirement, according to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article. A representative of the NBA players’ association said in 2008 that 60 % of NBA players declare bankruptcy within five years of leaving the league. It could be assumed that athletes, because they work so hard to attain their wealth, would be more likely to use it responsibly. Not always the case. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson burned through $400 million that he earned during his career, pro football quarterback Michael Vick burned through over $100 million, and former NBA star Allen Iverson burned through $150 million during his career. These stars are not the exception, but the norm. Those that retain their wealth and find happiness are the exception.
Why does this happen? Why are most of those hard-working Americans waiting in line for Powerball tickets going to be prone to the same problems if they pick the right numbers? Why is the if-then happiness paradox proved correct so often?
Researchers may be able to provide an answer. The setpoint theory of happiness, which explains why this paradox exists, resulted from a 1978 study which showed that lottery winners eventually end up being no happier than people who suffer from spinal cord injuries! After the initial euphoria wears off, they ended up at their baseline level of happiness, a level determined by factors such as temperament, mood, and emotional maturity. They found that personality also plays a role, with happiness potential being determined by as much as 50% from inherited and acquired characteristics. These characteristics, become ingrained from parental messages, life events, and circumstances of our upbringing. Most of us will act both consciously and subconsciously in ways that confirm beliefs about wealth and happiness that we already have. Most of these lottery winners and athletes become victims of self sabotage and end up believing that outside forces are responsible for the loss of their relatively instant millions. The reality is that most of them engage in behaviors that are consistent with their beliefs about happiness, acting in ways that confirm their beliefs about wealth and happiness.
For example, Mike Tyson’s substance abuse, exotic animals, cars, and partying, were all attempts at making himself happy. Money alone is never enough for a person with a low happiness set point. Money is seen as a way to become happy, rather than enhancing happiness that already exists. More, more, more is seen as the way to happiness. For those with a low happiness set point, it seldom is.
So where does true happiness come from? Research consistently shows that the happiest people are those that engage in altruistic, other oriented activities. Data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey, a collection of statistics representing the largest and longest-standing series of studies on happiness, indicates that this is the most primary correlate to life satisfaction. It also turns out that Americans are not as happy as we would think. The 2013 World Happiness Report, issued by a United Nations committee, ranked the United States 78th among world nations when it comes to happiness, with the top five being Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Brazil. Think about that for a moment. People in Iceland are significantly happier when people in the United States!
There are ways that all of us can be happier. Here are some suggestions that are backed by science:
⦁ Enjoy the journey. Ultimately happiness is an internal state created by your beliefs and actions, rather than something that comes from outside of you. Learning to derive happiness from little things that are consistently part of your world is the critical reason why people in less developed nations are happy. Be grateful for clean water, food, fresh air, and close family and friends. Gratitude for things that are necessary for living-you don’t need a Rolex watch, a Lexus, or a 60 inch flatscreen TV to remain alive-will make you happier over the long run.
⦁ Notice ways that your self talk and internal dialogue are contributing to your state of unhappiness. Pay close attention to the if-then thoughts that you instinctively create. Becoming aware of the if-then paradox is important if you are not going to fall victim to it.
⦁ Ask yourself better questions when the if-then logic pop send to your thinking. “Would I really be more happy if I had $1 million?” It’s okay to dream, but don’t assume that your happiness is something that you can purchase, drive, or pour from of a bottle. Realizing that you have the capacity to make yourself happy already can be an empowering and liberating realization.
⦁ Stay connected to, and grateful for, basic human necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, water, and meaningful social connections. Noticing these and being grateful for them on a consistent basis is the best way to generate that internal state of bliss which we call happiness.
Science indicates that we, and we alone, are the reason for our happiness. Money, fame, and a Charlie Sheen lifestyle are simply not going to create it. Happiness is something that we are, not something we are going to get if. Happiness, like life, is all about the journey not the destination. Next time you find yourself envious of some wealthy celebrity or lottery winner reconsider, reassess, and maybe even be careful what you wish for.
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” – Sigmund Freud
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