3 Things That Will Make You Happier Than Winning the Lottery, According to a Harvard Professor

For many hard-driven entrepreneurs and other business leaders, happiness sometimes feels like it can be measured in numbers of dollars–this quarter’s profits, or the deal you just landed, or the latest round of funding. But in fact, the research is very clear that money doesn’t equate to happiness and getting more of it is unlikely to make you happier.

For example, look at what happens to people who win the lottery, says Harvard Medical School professor Sanjiv Chopra. (Author and alternative medicine expert Deepak Chopra is his brother.) “The research shows that at the end of a year, they’re back to baseline. Some are less happy,” Sanjiv Chopra said in his TEDx talk.

This is because of a psychological phenomenon called hedonic adaptation, he explained. You may buy, say, a beautiful house and the car of your dreams. “At the end of three months, it’s a nice house, it’s a nice car. You get used to it,” he said. If you’ve ever spent time longing for a beautiful object or an article of clothing and then finally obtained it, you may have experienced hedonic adaptation yourself. In time, you may still love your purchase, but it will likely lose its power to lift your spirits just because you own it.

If money won’t make you happy, what will? You can find several answers in his talk. Here are my favorites.

1. Purpose (or dharma).

For Chopra, happiness is tied up with the idea of dharma, a term with no exact equivalent in English that is sometimes translated as virtue or merit. Socrates said that happiness was not reserved for poets and kings, Chopra said, but could be attained by human endeavor. “Happiness and virtue were inextricably linked. The ancient Greeks actually did not use the word happiness; They used a term called eudaimonia which literally translated means ‘human flourishing.'” The idea is that humans are happy when they are flourishing–fulfilling their purpose to do something meaningful in the world.

Chopra said he discovered his own dharma when he was in high school in New Delhi and suddenly went blind. His father, a physician, miraculously diagnosed a one-in-a-million adverse reaction to a tetanus shot Chopra had had two weeks earlier. Even more amazing, the father made this diagnosis by phone, from 70 miles away. He told Chopra’s doctors to immediately administer a massive dose of corticosteroids which brought Chopra’s vision back within eight hours.

“That was the day I decided my dharma was to become a doctor,” he said. What’s yours?

2. Giving.

Remember that research on lottery winners? There was one group who did seem to gain lasting happiness from their windfall: those who gave some of the money to charitable causes that they cared about. Humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer made the same observation, Chopra added. Speaking to a group, he once said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be but one thing I’m certain of. The ones amongst you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

A fascinating experiment seems to bear out this thinking. College students were given a small amount of money and some were told to spend it on something they wanted, while others were told to spend it on someone else. At the end of the day, those who’d spent it on others were measurably happier.

3. Gratitude.

“Research has shown that if you express gratitude on a regular basis you’ll be happy, you’ll be more creative, you’ll be more fulfilled–you might even live ten years longer,” Chopra said.

Studies of twins have shown that 50 percent of our happiness is determined by our genetics, he added. “Astoundingly, only 10 percent is living conditions, whether you live in a huge mansion in Beverly Hills or the slums of Calcutta.” The other 40 percent is dependent on factors such as purpose and giving described above.

But even the genetic 50 percent, what Chopra calls the “set point,” can be improved through things like regular exercise, behavioral cognitive therapy, meditation–and by  expressing gratitude on a regular basis. He notes that Robert Emmons, known for leading the positive psychology movement, says research shows you can increase set point happiness 25 percent through the regular practice of expressing gratitude. That may be reason enough to try to feel grateful every day. 

There’s a small but growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we wind up in an ongoing conversation. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) They tell me that few things make as big a difference to their lives as a regular gratitude practice. Amazingly, gratitude has even been shown to work as an effective painkiller when you’re ill. This magical state of mind can help you in countless ways, and science is always discovering more of them.

So if you don’t take any of Chopra’s other advice, please do try practicing gratitude. The changes it makes to your outlook and mood may surprise you. And it will definitely make you happier than winning the lottery could.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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