Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has a simple question for you: Would you rather win $314 million in the lottery, or would you rather lose the use of both of your legs in an accident?
Seems like an easy question to answer, right? But before we get to lottery winners and paraplegia, Gilbert wants to tell a quick story about The Beatles.
Lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.
“Well, in 1994, when Pete Best was interviewed,” Gilbert says, mentioning that Best is still a drummer and a studio musician, “he had this to say: ‘I’m happier than I would have been with The Beatles.'”
That can’t possibly be true, you might think to yourself.
Now, back to the lottery winner and the paraplegic.
“A year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto,” Gilbert says, “lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.” That finding isn’t merely anecdotal, Gilbert says. It’s backed by actual research.
Again, you might ask, “How could that possibly be true?”
It comes down to something interesting Gilbert gleaned from his research: Human beings are often very bad at predicting what will create true, lasting happiness in their lives. Not only that, but research suggests achievements or luck — the big promotion, or a surprise sack of cash — aren’t necessary to generate genuine happiness.
So what does science tell us about how happiness is generated? Gilbert happily explains in the TED Talk below, which has been viewed more than 12 million times: