Health: Forget it all. For an instant

A study shows that six months after winning the Lottery, you are likely to be no happier than if you had been paralysed in a car crash. No wonder ticket sales are falling.

When the National Lottery was launched in 1994, many people assumed that a multi-million-pound windfall would be the answer to their problems. However, many winners are finding that the money doesn't make them as happy as they expected.

Gary Brand, who won pounds 750,000, says it nearly ruined his life. In a recent interview, he revealed: "I drank a lot, far more than I had done before, and slobbed about the house, watching television and eating junk food, which made me put on weight." Another winner, Ken White, said: "I've got the pool, the mansion, the Jag... but all my pounds 6.5m lotto win has bought me is misery... soon you realise you have as many troubles when you are rich as when you haven't two pennies to rub together."

Forecasting emotions is more difficult than people think. Big money national lottery winners have been found, statistically, to be no happier than those paralysed following a major car accident, six months after each event. People expected to feel good about winning the lottery, but after a brief period of euphoria they found their level of happiness settling quickly back to the average.

Studies of the way people react to terrible events such as losing a child in a car accident, being diagnosed with cancer, becoming paralysed or being sent to a concentration camp have similarly found that these experiences had less impact on long-term happiness than might have been expected.

While we are generally good at predicting what will make us happy or sad, we find it strangely difficult to tell how happy or sad we will be.

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor of psychology who has studied this phenomenon, observed 100 university professors before and after they found out whether they had won a promotion. They expected to be quite happy if chosen and quite unhappy if not. In fact, those who got the promotion were happy, but not as happy as predicted, and those denied it were unhappy, but not as unhappy as expected.

This inability correctly to predict our emotional states after important events could be one of the most profound discoveries of modern psychology, because every major decision we make is based on an implicit prediction of how the outcome will make us feel. The decision to marry or divorce, or to become a lawyer rather than a trumpet-player, hinges on the choice we think will bring the greater emotional rewards.

Common examples of our poor emotional forecasting include our tendency to marry the wrong person (we think we will be happier with them than we turn out to be), shopping for groceries on an empty stomach (we think we will eat more than we eventually do) and whenever we say "I'll just have one chip".

While poor decision-making may be an unfortunate side-effect of this, the benefit is a kind of "psychological immune system", which protects us from feeling too terrible when bad things happen. This psychological immunity partly works by means of the rationalisations we wheel out to cope with crisis, explains Gilbert.

In a further study, he found that those in serious long-term romantic relationships predicted they would feel much worse if the relationship broke up, than they in fact did. Indeed, some time later there was no significant difference in happiness between those who broke up and those still in a relationship.

So when we are dumped, we eventually start thinking that we never loved the person that much anyway, and he or she was probably not right for us. These rationalisations can be surprisingly powerful. Gilbert quotes the example of the man who narrowly missed the chance to franchise the first McDonald's restaurant, and hence the opportunity to become a billionaire, who noted many decades later: "I believe it turned out for the best."

We also constantly overestimate the impact of events on our emotional lives because we exaggerate how we think we would feel after a possible future event as a way of motivating ourselves. So we say: "if I fail the algebra test next week I will be doomed to a life of poverty, so I'd better skip the party and stay at home to revise." In fact, failing the test probably wouldn't have that impact, but if we realised that, we wouldn't be motivated to revise hard for it.

We also tend to focus exclusively on the future event we are dwelling on; we fail to consider the effects of everything else that could be going on in our lives then. We imagine the next big promotion in our career will make us happy for ever, which is why we then make excessive sacrifices for the boss; we forget that after the advancement, other aspects of life will continue as before.

But if we became more aware of precisely how poorly we predict how we will feel in the future, this has major implications for treating our psychological problems. For example, if a phobic realised he wouldn't feel quite as bad as he thinks when encountering a spider, he would stop being a spider phobic.

The extreme insinuation of his work is that we can all choose to live on a kind of "Zen" planet where we declare "it doesn't matter what you do to me; I will be OK anyway."

But Gilbert hastens to correct this misapprehension. "He isn't saying events don't make a difference to our happiness, just that they make less of a difference than we consistently imagine they will."

However, our tendency to avoid taking risks is due to our expecting to cope less well with disaster or failure than we would in fact, and this should encourage us to gamble more. Even if things don't go as we hoped, we shall probably cope with adversity better than we predict. Gilbert is himself an example of this, as he is probably one of the only professors at Harvard not to have got a high-school diploma; he dropped out of school preferring to go travelling rather than graduating.

Gilbert himself acknowledges that there are many people who end up feeling worse after bad events than can be accounted for by his research. After all, suicide and depression do occur after relationship breakdown and job loss. His argument is that psychiatric disorder occurs when our psychological immune system malfunctions. Yet what is fundamentally provocative about his work is it turns on its head our previous notion that it is the mentally ill who are deluded and irrational in their approach to the world. It now seems it is the sane, who rationalise away the bad things that happen to them, because their psychological immune system is constantly protecting them from reality.

The writer's book `Staying Sane: How to Make Your Mind Work for You' is published by Metro, at pounds 12.99

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