Opinions, Column, Featured Column

A 1/292 Chance of Being Happy?

A yacht: 165 feet long, 7,500 square feet of living space, max speed 17 kt, all-composite hull. It includes a kitchen, dining hall, gym, sauna, office, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a built-in hot tub on the deck. Its name: Size Matters. This is what I would buy if I won the lottery.

My dreams of sailing along the Amalfi Coast may be far-fetched, but the attention surrounding the recent $1.5 billion Powerball lottery was very real. And despite every news source having fueled the lottery frenzy, I figured I would still offer my two cents on the situation (I would offer more, but I didn’t win).

Let us focus on the basics of Powerball. Five white balls are selected out of a drum of 69 balls, along with one red ball out of a drum with 26 red balls. You win the jackpot by matching five white balls in any order and the red ball. Your odds of winning: 1 in 292,201,338.  So you’re saying there’s a chance? Not really. At $2 a ticket, it is a bad bet. And I think it’s easy for us to forget just how ludicrous those odds are.  To put $292 million into perspective, here is a Forbes.com list of things that will more likely happen to you before you hit the jackpot: Dying from heart disease: 1 in 3. Injured by a toilet: 1 in 10,000. Crushed by a meteor: 1 in 700,000. Struck by lightning: 1 in 2,300,000. The takeaway is that your energy, or at least your money, is better spent elsewhere. Nevertheless, the odds bring up an interesting question on human nature: why do we buy the ticket anyway?

I believe there is a two-part answer. First, we have a tendency to overvalue the probability of beneficial events, and to devalue the probability of negative ones. This is because we are emotionally invested. We are so desperate to improve the quality of our lives—our happiness—that we unconsciously ignore the numbers. It is our innate hope that creates optimists instead of realists. Secondly, we invest our happiness in material things. From our earliest memories, we are either directly or indirectly bombarded with ads and marketing schemes that manipulate how we think. These tactics subtly wire false ideas of happiness into our subconscious. And this is hardly an original realization, but no matter how much we say that we are not materialistic, it is much harder to put this statement into practice. Our everyday surroundings motivate us to “buy more” in order to achieve happiness. We cannot possibly ignore this call completely.

Hence, when all these goods can be obtained with money, the $1.5 billion seems like the ultimate key to our success. A doorway that will open to the path of everything we could want. It is an almost irresistible offer. But we recognize that this is not the answer. The true happiness we seek is found elsewhere, but none of these ads tell us where to look. I am not criticizing our competitive market system, but I am criticizing our inability to find this happiness, especially when we know it lies within ourselves.

In his TED Talk, Dan Gilbert attempts to scientifically evaluate happiness. He finds that paraplegics are equally happy as lottery winners merely a year after their respective life-changing incidents. In fact, he argues, major life traumas have no impact on your happiness after three months (with some exceptions). These traumas lose their significance because we exemplify a capacity to change our perceptions over time. We all have this unique mental perseverance that, when exercised, redefines our inner-relation with the world, allowing us to feel content with our lives. This ability reveals that happiness is accessible to everyone.

So where do we go from here? That’s the $1.5 billion question. And I am not going to answer with some cliche phrase like “friendship is the real jackpot.” The reality is that true happiness is deeply complex—many people go their entire lives without finding it. We must actively adjust, and then readjust, our perspectives on the world in order to create a reality in which we can feel fulfilled. In my own search for happiness, I begin by practicing gratitude—the conscious effort to appreciate my life. Try this exercise that I did with my 4Boston group. Write a letter to someone you care about, explaining why your life is better because of him or her. Then send the letter.

I hope that, before long, finding happiness within yourself becomes easier and easier, until you genuinely are happy. And no, the $45 million yacht is not worth it.

Featured Image by Mark Humphrey – AP Photo

January 27, 2016