The case of the couple who won £56m on the EuroMillions raises a perennial question. Does winning a huge amount of money make you happy?
Call it envy, jealousy or moral disdain, but there’s no doubt that many of us have a problem with what we deem to be unearned wealth.
Go back in history and you’ll see sticky ends attributed to the fabulously wealthy. King Croesus was supposedly burned alive on a pyre, while Crassus was made to drink molten gold, but both these grisly fates may simply have been wishful thinking on the part of the envious.
The happiness it can bring is multiplied by a thousand times but it can bring heartache as well as people trying to rip you off
Won £7.5m in 1998
More recently, lottery wins seem to provoke heated discussion at the watercooler and in the back of taxis. Do they enjoy their windfalls? Or does their good fortune have the capacity to make them miserable, leaving them rudderless in a morass of luxury?
There have certainly been many winners who had their lives turned upside down by a big win. Relationships can break down under the strain, friendships can come under pressure. And the tabloids love nothing more than a winner who has frittered away all their money.
From a mental wellbeing point of view there are clearly dangers. Psychologist Caroline Schuster-Cotterell says a big win can leave people reeling in much the same way as any other major, life-changing event.
“It really can be disruptive. The first thing is the shock, not expecting it and suddenly winning. It is the speed and rate of change that tend to cause people trouble.”
Happiness wanting… Croesus (burned alive) and Crassus (drunk molten gold)
And the whirlwind of change helps to explain those newspaper stories about relationships foundering.
“The further aspect is changes in relationships with close friends and family. Attitudes can change,” says Dr Schuster-Cotterell.
“When one has a large win one is temporarily stunned and one doesn’t have such clear judgement as one normally would, making unwise decisions on several aspects of life.”
But for those who like to engage in Schadenfreude there is disappointing news from the studies that have been done on lottery winners, says Prof Andrew Oswald, of Warwick University.
“Although many people don’t want to hear the evidence, it is overwhelmingly that winning the lottery makes you happier and improves your mental health. People find it easier to engage in Schadenfreude.”
Prof Oswald’s tactic has not been to study only lottery winners. Instead he has taken a massive sample, of 50,000 people, and studied them over time in the hope that lottery winners would crop up.
“Fortunately for a scientist, a large proportion of people play the lottery. In our latest work the largest winner gets a million euros.”
This week’s £56m winners – happy now, and, say the studies, in the future
And the results, which Prof Oswald says have been replicated elsewhere, are clear.
“There is no doubt there is a very strong [initial] euphoria, then the evidence suggests people don’t enjoy the money for the first year or two.”
It’s not clear why there is this gap before lottery winners start to really enjoy themselves.
“We have postulated after the euphoria wears off, in their subconscious they realise they don’t deserve the money and it takes a while for this non-deservedness to wear off,” says Prof Oswald.
But there are some bad effects of a win, notably in someone’s health.
“They start to smoke more and drink more,” he says. “We think that may be bad for their health and hold down their happiness for a while.”
This type of research is important in the field of behavioural economics as it offers evidence for one of the great political and social questions.
“All politicians speak as though if they could make their citizens richer it would make their citizens happier. This is the closest we have to randomly assigned forms of money.”
Life is boring and there is too much nonsense
Former Pools winner Viv Nicholson
But of course, while the odd millionaire can crop up in a long-term study, it’s not going to be possible to study the psychological effects on the mega winners.
“There is no quality research on what happens to people with absolutely enormous wins – £50m is so extreme it is hard to know how to fit it in.”
And the newspapers have often relished the travails of the big winners. In 2007, one tabloid noted that a multimillion pound winner had put on a stone, split up with her boyfriend and become reclusive.
Interviews with those who have frittered away the money or been through a personal ordeal make more impact than those who have lived quietly and happily.
But the latter appear to be plentiful.
Grimsby-born Roy Gibney won £7.5m in 1998 and says life is “absolutely marvellous”. He lives in a villa in Cyprus with his wife and child much of the year, spending some time in Nairn and some in Grimsby. That is not to say that he is never unhappy.
“If you take a normal life everyone has ups and downs but multiply it by an awful lot. The happiness it can bring is multiplied by a thousand times but it can bring heartache as well as people trying to rip you off.
“Obviously, I’ve had my downs – family falling out with you because they want more money.”
But the key thing is retaining a “sensible head”, he says. His grown-up daughters had houses bought for them, but they still have to work.
“I won when I was 44 – it was the right age to win it.”
Michael Carroll, who won £9.7m and spent it all
But ultimately he views his life as full of opportunities he would not otherwise have had.
“Me, my wife and son flew to New York a couple of days before Christmas. We couldn’t have done that normally.”
Many journalists have been to speak to Viv Nicholson, the woman who famously vowed to “spend, spend, spend” when she scooped £152,000 on the football pools in 1961.
People expect that having spent all the money and endured a number of personal tragedies they will hear a story of regret and the corrosive power of sudden wealth. But they are disappointed.
“My experience was fantastic,” says Mrs Nicholson. “I just had everything, did everything I wanted, things that I would never have had. I don’t regret a thing. I did it my way. I live my life the way I wanted to.”
She is dismissive towards those who emphasise the value of saving over spending in the pursuit of happiness.
“Life is boring and there is too much nonsense.”
The big winners now have a support structure provided by Camelot’s winners’ advisers. It is in the firm’s interest that winners appear happy.
Go away somewhere new
Dot Renshaw, former head of player services and now a consultant for Camelot, advises winners to take a holiday somewhere new in the immediate aftermath of a jackpot.
“Try and get a holiday away from everything so you can try and come to terms with what’s happened,” she says. “Friends and family will have their own ideas of what you should be doing. Don’t rush into anything.”
Subsequently they line up a meeting with financial advisers and lawyers on how the money can be put to use, tax issues, and the making of a will.
But there is also help with the psychological side, both from former winners who are still in touch with Camelot and the advisers.
“We are not qualified counsellors, but we have over 40 years experience [between us] of dealing with jackpot winners.”
And for many people happiness is about enjoying their windfall while retaining their old friends and relationships.
“Their true friends are there for them,” says Ms Renshaw.