I live in fear of taking down the Euromillions. Upon hearing the 175 million was won in Ireland, I had a moment of terror where I tried to remember if I had done it or not. What if I had won the lot? What then? What would become of us?
I often joke with my wife that it isn’t love that kept us together, but poverty. Breaking up is an expensive business – there’s the legal fees, splitting of assets, securing two new properties from the proceeds of the sale of one, botox for her, Ed Hardy jeans and highlights for me, not to mention the high cost of being single again and trying to appear affluent whilst using a medical card to get treatment for my fungal toenail. A relative lack of money, and not having enough income to follow through on heat-of-the-moment threats of divorce meant that we were forced to work things out. It is very much like locking two arguing children into a room until they sort out their disagreement, and it works, in a clunky kind of way. So we have yet to test the richer or for poorer part of our marriage vows, as for the most part our life together has been spent occasionally buying milk with a credit card and borrowing from the kids’ credit union accounts.
I grew up listening to my dad telling me that money isn’t happiness, a funny motto for someone who worked in a bank. He had seen how money could ruin people, through either not having enough, or having too much, or simply through their own obsessions with it. He wanted me to have enough, and a little extra, but not much more. So at least I didn’t disappoint him by either earning loads or winning 175 million euro, and ruining my own happiness.
There is a theory in popular psychology called the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation. It is our remarkable ability to return to a relatively stable level of happiness after major events, both positive or negative. In short, whether you win the lottery or almost die in a car crash, your levels of happiness will be much the same as they were before the event. A famous study in the late Seventies looked at the relative happiness of lottery winners and paraplegics a year after their big win or the accident that paralysed them. The authors of the study noted that “In general, lottery winners rated winning the lottery as a highly positive event, and paraplegics rated their accident as a highly negative event, though neither outcome was rated as extremely as might have been expected.”
That report also became the subject of one of the first TED talks, when Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert used the 1978 study as the basis for his talk on happiness. The study has been shown to be scientifically weak, but further studies since that effectively say much the same thing – that, as Darwin noted, it is not strength that allows us to survive, but an ability to adapt to change, be it good or bad.
Over the last couple of years my wife and I have had the usual run of mixed fortunes that come with life on earth – losing people, kids being diagnosed with things, and the aforementioned money struggles – but I would still say that I am relatively happy. I’m sure I could be happier, and there are days when I feel immensely sad, but overall I would say I am clocking a solid seven on a one to ten happiness scale, where one is the guy in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and ten is Joseph Ducreux in his self portrait, Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur. One hundred and seventy five million euro isn’t going to raise that figure any much, although during the lean times over the last few years, I would say I slipped to a five or below on several occasions, partly due to money worries. But I get by, happiness stabilises again, and the treadmill keeps running.
To suddenly be immensely wealthy, to have no want you cannot fulfil, to never work again, sounds like a kind of hell. As Gilbert noted in his later works, “A little money can buy you a lot of happiness, though a lot of money buys you only a little more happiness.”
So congratulations to the Euromillions winners, and if any of them wants to put my kids through college, that would be great.