LETTER: The Lottery: happiness, public involvement and His opinion

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From Dr Peter Ayton

Sir: Aside from the fact that lottery popularity is an ironic case of the Government hypocritically benefiting from the irrationality of market forces, those who queue to buy lottery tickets amid reports of the misery of winners ("pounds 22m winner is revealed as a loser in love", 13 June) would do well to consider that extremes of good (and bad) fortune affect us less than we think: happiness is relative.

A study of 22 major lottery winners in the US finds that lottery winners are no happier than non-winners and take significantly less pleasure from everyday events (eg talking with friends, watching television, hearing a funny joke). It seems that the peak experience of winning makes all other experiences pale by comparison.

One benefit is that the same principle holds in reverse for groups that suffer extremes of ill-fortune, like accidental paralysis; such groups adapt to be far happier than we might expect. There is also evidence that the inhabitants of poorer cities or countries are not less happy than the inhabitants of more favoured places. And, in spite of the search for the elusive feelgood factor, there are several studies showing no consistent relation between economic improvement and increased happiness.

Suggestions for capping lottery payouts because large amounts are unlikely to deliver an "extra slice of happiness" and "would spread the benefits among the runners-up" amusingly assume that the Lottery could be organised equitably, but the basic principle is inequity; the whole point is that there are more losers than winners. It would be most equitable, and create less misery for winners, if prizes were spread right down the list so all participants simply got their money back.

Sincerely,

PETER AYTON

Department of Psychology

School of Social Sciences

City University

London, EC1

13 June

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