What happens when you get what you wish for?

By Gordon Rugg

A favourite plot device involves someone getting what they wish for, but in a way that leaves them either back where they started, or worse off than when they started.

That plot device ties in with a couple of widespread beliefs about the world.

One is known as the just world hypothesis. As the name implies, this belief holds that there’s an underlying pattern of justice in the world, so that what you get is balanced against what you deserve. Good events, such as winning the lottery, are either a reward for previous good actions, or are counterbalanced by later disaster, to set the balance straight.

This is a comforting belief, because it implies that we don’t need to worry too much about bad things happening to us; in this belief system, we’ll get what we deserve, so if we behave well, things will be fine. There’s the added bonus that we don’t need to feel guilty about other people’s suffering, since that will also balance out one way or another.

Another widespread belief is that hubris – excessive pride or ambition – will be punished by Fate. This is very similar to the tall poppies effect, where a social group disapproves of group members aspiring to or achieving significantly more than the rest of the group.

Both of these beliefs have far-reaching implications; the beliefs and their implications have been studied in some depth, and are well worth reading about.

They’re beliefs, though. What about reality? What actually happens when people get what they wish for?

The short answer is: Usually, not much.

Lottery tickets, ancient and modernlottery banner

Images from Wikipedia; sources at the end of this article

There have been several studies of people whose lives have unexpectedly and dramatically changed, whether via good events or bad. In this article, I’ll focus on what happens when you suddenly get more money.

One common finding involves hygiene factors. More money does tend to bring more happiness, up to a point. However, it’s a surprisingly low point (equivalent to having a salary a bit above the national average). It’s enough to fix the active problems in your life, which usually doesn’t take an enormous amount of money. After that, happiness levels don’t improve significantly with increased wealth.

With more dramatic changes in wealth, one consistent finding is that the those increases in wealth usually make surprisingly little long-term difference to the person’s overall level of happiness. The first year or so after a lottery win is usually turbulent, but after that, the person usually stabilises at about the same overall level of happiness that they had before the event. As you might expect, there are exceptions to this generalisation, but on the whole, unhappy people tend to stay unhappy even after becoming wealthy.

Another common finding is that people’s lifestyles often don’t undergo much long-term change after becoming suddenly wealthy.

One frequent pattern is to spend some of the money buying gifts for family and friends (for instance, a new house for the winner’s parents) and buying a new house and/or car, but then continuing to work in the same day job as before, with few changes to overall lifestyle.

Another common pattern is to spend extravagantly until all the money is gone, and then return to the same lifestyle as before.

In short, winning the lottery is not a guaranteed recipe for becoming blissfully content in a very different long-term lifestyle.

So, what’s going on?

In brief, I think that it comes back to script theory.

A script, in this sense, is a mental guideline for how to behave in a particular situation, such as how to behave when eating in a sushi restaurant. Not having an adequate script for a situation can lead to considerable embarrassment at a social level, and to disaster at a practical level if you don’t know how to handle a physical problem, so this is an important issue.

There’s a whole industry of wealth advisors, for people who have inherited or won a large amount of money, and who don’t have an appropriate mental script. This might sound like a straightforward solution to the problem of not knowing what to do, but the full story is more complex. What often happens is that the script for how to handle a large amount of money in a way that makes good financial sense clashes with the lottery winner’s long-established scripts for how I spend my money and how I spend my life.

This leads into a couple of other related concepts, namely instrumental behaviour and expressive behaviour. Instrumental behaviour is about getting something done; expressive behaviour is about showing people what sort of person you are.

So, if you’re using a life script which involves showing people what a happy-go-lucky person you are, then gambling and playing the lottery are expressive behaviours which fit well with that script. However, if you then win a fortune on the lottery, what do you do, in terms of life script? Changing life script means changing a large part of who you are, in terms of values and goals and behaviours, so most people are understandably reluctant to make that change. Even if the happy-go-lucky gambler did try making that change, they would quite likely find their new life intolerably dull, and not the “real me”. So, instead of changing to the script of sensible financial strategies, that person will probably continue as before, and will therefore have roughly the same level of life satisfaction.

When you look at the issue from this point of view, the findings about lottery winners start making a lot more sense. There’s an old truism in some areas of counselling to the effect that if people have a choice between what they’re used to, and being happy, most people choose what they’re used to.

The dynamic is very different with someone who is playing the lottery instrumentally, as a means to an end. Their response to a lottery win is still going to be hard to predict, though, because of the problem that you can’t know what you don’t know. If you reach your goal, you may find that it’s not as great as you expected it to be.

A more positive ending

Winning the lottery doesn’t guarantee happiness. However, it doesn’t guarantee unhappiness, either.

Lives can and do change for the better. This is something that can happen via quite a few different paths. One thing that you often see in biographies, for instance, is the account of how someone discovered a place or an interest or a career that they fell in love with, and that they went on loving till the end of their life.

Quite what is happening in those cases is a fascinating question. I suspect it’s something related both to script theory and to sensory diet: The person finds a lifestyle which fits both their life script and their preferred sensory diet. That’s something that I’m planning to research some day, when I have the time and the money; perhaps via winning the lottery…

On which cheering note, I’ll end.

Links and notes

Banner image sources:

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16170643

By Magnus D from London, United Kingdom – Håll tummarna!, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15810291

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book: Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

You might also find our website useful for an overview of our work.

Overviews of the articles on this blog:






2 thoughts on “What happens when you get what you wish for?

  1. Pingback: Catastrophic success | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Mental models, medical misunderstandings, and expressive and instrumental behaviour | hyde and rugg

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