Sunday, April 09, 2006

More Happiness

Today, we turn to happiness research by Sorbonne economist Claudia Senik discussed in the NYTimes. Senik argues "that the struggle for a certain achievement may offer a peculiar reward all its own. Although many people seem quite goal-oriented -- especially when it comes to money, homes, cars, new kitchens and other goods that have become stand-ins for status -- maybe it's not so much having the stuff that people really enjoy, but the struggle to obtain it."

This makes sense. I think a similar process explains why people play the lottery. The actual expected return on a lottery ticket is pretty small (at 1 in 150,000,000 odds the jackpot for things like powerball has to be huge to have a positive expected payout). It doesn't make sense that people play the lottery as an investment strategy. Some might, but most, I think, are purchasing something other then a chance at $X. Instead, they are purchasing the opportunity to imagine what you would do if you won the $X. That can be alot of fun even if you know that you aren't going to actually win the lottery.

So since Im a huge dork, im actually reading a book called "Chances Are..." which discusses this exact topic. The author states "Almost since they first began, lotteries have been criticized as a tax on the poor. That may be so; but we should consider the alternative uses for the money. Five dollars will make little difference to a familys weekly spending; putting it away in the bank at two percent real return means that fifty years of saving might add up for an extra three years of penury in old age--$34,970. Yet the possibility, however remote, of winning real wealth provides its own rate of interest in dreams and hope. Will you buy the Ferrari first or go to Tahiti? Set up your children in houses or, as one lucky trucker did, drive around the highway system for a month, waving to your ex-workmates from teh open sunroof of a limousine. In fact, looking at the lives of so many who suddenly become rich, lotteries may actually do more for those who do not win than for those who do."

And for those of you interested in playing the lottery regularly:
"think randomly...people draw diagonals and choose dates. Any winning sequence with a 19 or 20 is more likely to have multiple winners sharing a jackpot."

I think that this is really interesting. I would think that externalities such as dreaming of winning the lottery if you play would be accounted for in the price of a lottery ticket. But since the expected value of a lottery ticket is around 35 cents to the dollar, I find it hard to believe that externalities account for the remaining 65 cents. I wonder what other factors enter into the equation.
What I think is curious in this article is Senik's suggestion to enjoy the process of desiring the future object/state as much as the obtainment of that object/state. Though I think this is vastly important the approach seems a little off to me. According to the author, Dunleavey, of the NY times article, "Dr. Senik's research suggests that it's fine to crave the condo and the car as long as you realize there may be more pleasure in striving for those goals than in actually achieving them." This initially sounds great; I'm a firm believer of the idea that we need to generate happiness out of the present moment rather than a future event. Its the old saying, "enjoy the ride." But, if people were present enough to be able to enjoy the process of desiring a future good, it seems that they would no longer need to look to the future to obtain that good to begin with. Similarly, if you really crave something--say, a car-- and you're able to comprehend the fact that the car won't make you ultimately happy, are you still going to get excited about it to begin with? Won't knowing that it wont' be fulfilling kind of deflate your enthusiasm? It seems like a tough blend to find someone that can still get really excited about something (and be aware of the joy of the excitement), that they know will not necessarily make them happy. Ultimately though, being conscious of our desires may be the best we can do, as it is highly unlikely anyone will completely give up the hunt for acheivement and material prosperity. I suppose this article suggests somewhat of a middle ground, though anyone that becomes particularly good at enjoying the process rather than the outcome may buy less and put less effort into earning titles.
bryce did you post this to reinforce the fact that you love to watch us struggle with all the vagaries of environmental problems and the ever infamous bell curve?!
I would like to express my thoughts on the matter with the words of jonny mercer (sing this to yourselves):

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene

To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
Well what did they do
Just when everything looked so dark

Man, they said you got to
Accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
No, do not mess with Mister In-Between

And just to add to my arsenal of cliches, sayings and puns, here's a little dictum to live by:
"if at first you don't succeed, lower your standards".
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