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What can policymakers learn from happiness research?

March 18, 2010

Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker:

In 1978, a trio of psychologists curious about happiness assembled two groups of subjects. In the first were winners of the Illinois state lottery. These men and women had received jackpots of between fifty thousand and a million dollars. 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 asked the members of both groups a battery of questions about their lives. On a scale of “the best and worst things that could happen,” how did the members of the first group rank becoming rich and the second wheelchair-bound? How happy had they been before these events? How about now? How happy did they expect to be in a couple of years? How much pleasure did they take in daily experiences such as talking with a friend, hearing a joke, or reading a magazine? (The lottery winners were also asked how much they enjoyed buying clothes, a question that was omitted in the case of the quadriplegics.) For a control, the psychologists assembled a third group, made up of Illinois residents selected at random from the phone book. When the psychologists tabulated the answers, they found that the lottery group rated winning as a highly positive experience and the accident group ranked victimhood as a negative one. Clearly, the winners realized that they’d been fortunate. But this only made the subsequent results more puzzling. [More]

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