Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Lottery Winner and the Paraplegic

It started off a normal conversation. It's one many of us have had. What would you do if you won the lottery? I was having this conversation with my mother. Her dream was to be able to give as much of the money away and still have enough to live comfortably. It would have pissed of a lot of people in my family, my brother and I included, because we wouldn't be getting the bulk of the money. She'd give to charities and churches and schools. My brother and I would get quite a bit, but not as much as we'd have liked. I had read about a lottery winner support group. I told my mom about it. She couldn't understand. Why would a lottery winner need a support group? As it turns out winning the lottery isn't as good as it seems. There are three reasons. The first is progress principle. The second is the adaptation principle. The last is simple, greed destroys relationships.

The progress principle states that we get more pleasure from working toward a goal than actually attaining it. Losing weight is a lot more satisfying than already being at a healthy weight. Earning money is always more satisfying that already having money, Shakespeare said it best "a goal won is done, life's joy is in the doing" This is because in our biology. The brain is a system of stimulus and response. The closer the stimulus is to the response the better the connection between the two. Long-term goals mean a large separation between the two. This is why most animals seek only sex and food and avoid dying. It's immediate reward or punishment system is how natural selection works. Both are enjoyable and so we seek them out. Dying and pain are bas so we avoid it. The longer the time from completing a task to the reward we get the less we are motivated to do it again. The joy is in the small success along the way to your goals. In the case of the lottery winner we greatly over estimate the joy or getting rich quick.

The adaptation principle states that we react more to change than steady states. That given a steady state over time we will adapt to it. In the case of the lottery winner that mean she will enjoy the winning less than she thought and then over time she will get used to the winnings. Having no way to move up any more in wealth she goes right back to wanting money just as much as before winning the lottery now instead of wanting a million collars she wants tem million dollars. It's sometimes referred to as the hedonic treadmill. We seek more a more material pleasure only to find out it doesn't make us lastingly happy. We're pulled back to our original state of happiness and we move on to a new goal. It feels like we're making progress but we're really moving in place.

And of course there is greed. I love my mother, but her giving my money away really could damage our relationship. And one of the few exceptions to the adaptation principal is a lot of loving relationships. The more socially connected we are to people who care about us the better off we are emotionally and physically. We live longer and happier lives when we have strong ties to our family and friends and to the community at large. Winning the lottery can threaten that in a large way. We often underestimate just how much it can change our life for the worse. Many lottery winner become shut ins because so many people hit them up for cash and when they say no it damages their relationships. Some resort to moving away and other form support groups.

So what's the deal with the paraplegic? Well if winning the lottery is supposed to make you happy then breaking you neck has got to be the worldly opposite. Just about the worse thing that could happen to you other than a painfully slow death. But think about it from the point of their of these facts the progress paradox suggests that going to zero means you can only up. Physical therapy slowly gives you more function the stimulus response connection couldn't be stronger. Effort and reward are almost the same. The adaptation principle suggest that we'd be sad for a long why, but we'd get used to being immobile/ And the effect to relationships usually bang people who care about you to your side truly showing you how much they really care about you. I'm not saying I don't want to win the lottery or that I want to break my neck, what I'm saying is that we have a hard time predicting what will make us happy. And that maybe we should take these things in mind the next time we set a goal. Understand where real joy comes from and do that instead.

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