In 1978, a trio of psychologists curious about happiness assembled two groups of subjects. In the first were winners of the Illinois state lottery. In the second group were victims of devastating accidents. Some had been left paralyzed from the waist down. For the others, paralysis started at the neck.
The researchers wrote up their findings on the lottery winners and the accident victims in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper is now considered one the founding texts of happiness studies , a field that has yielded some surprising morose results. It's not just hitting the jackpot that fails to lift spirits; a whole range of activities that people tend to think will make them happy do not, it turns out, have that effect.
As the happiness researchers Tim Wilson and Daniel Gilbert have put it, "People routinely mispredict how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring."
Several studies have been offered to explain why the United States is, in effect, a nation of joyless lottery winners. One, the so-called "hedonic treadmill" hypothesis , holds that people rapidly adjust to improved situations; thus, as soon as they acquire some new delight their expectations ramp upward, and they are left no happier than before. Another is that people are relativists; they are interested not so much in having more stuff as in having more than those around them.
In his bestselling book "Stumbling on Happiness" (2006), Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard , offers a catalogue of the ways that people misjudge their own satisfactions. They tend to think they'll be happier with more variety, when, in fact, they get more pleasure from being offered the same thing over and over again. They are willing to pay a premium to preserve their options, but they're more contented when they commit themselves to a particular choice. They anticipate being overjoyed by events that, when they actually occur, leave them unmoved.
If happiness research simply confirmed what people already believed, there would be no need, and really no reason, to argue for its relevance. It's the counterintuitive cast of the results that makes the work provocative. Life satisfaction comes from the hope of tomorrow being a brighter day. As Alexander Pope wrote in 1733, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast."