By Jason Marsh
If you won $19 million, would you share it with your co-workers?
That's the question seven lucky New York state employees arereportedly contemplating after claiming the huge Mega Millions lottery jackpot Thursday. For years, the so-called "Albany Seven" have pooled their money to buy lottery tickets together.
Now that their numbers have come up, they are in a position to share their winnings with five colleagues who had been part of the pool in the past but didn't pitch in this time around.
The idea of sharing a multimillion dollar windfall such as this might seem ludicrous. It surely goes against some longstanding notions we have about human behavior, namely that it's guided by self-interest.
But a recent wave of scientific research suggests it's not such a crazy idea after all. In fact, giving away a portion of their winnings might be a surer route to happiness for the Albany Seven than keeping it all for themselves.
Many psychological studies have found that after our basic needs are met, more money does not necessarily bring us more happiness; it might even impair our ability to enjoy positive experiences in life. What's more, research has shown that lottery winners are no happier than the rest of us, and they get less pleasure from everyday activities.
On the flip side, though, there's a growing body of evidence that people feel a genuine boost of pleasure and happiness when they give to others. Altruism activates the same regions of the brain that light up when we have sex, eat chocolate or indulge in other pleasures, according to scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Some research even suggests we feel more happiness when we spend on others than when we spend on ourselves.
Even if they're not aware of these findings, there could be other factors that cause the Albany Seven to share their winnings with their less lucky colleagues.
For one thing, people are significantly more likely to show altruism toward members of their own "group" or "team," perhaps because we identify with members of our own group more than others, and there's a greater chance we'll count on them to return the favor down the line. Co-workers are a good example of such a team, especially in this case, where co-workers pooled their money on the same lottery "team" for years.
Generosity also stems from our deeply rooted sense of fairness. Though we often lament humans' selfishness, a great deal of research shows that we're often willing to share a prize with others, especially when there's reason to believe they deserve at least part of that prize.
This is true even among young children. In a recent study out of Harvard, pairs of 3-year-old kids had to work together to obtain a prize, but only one of the two kids on each team actually got his or her hands on it. Still, that prize winner was overwhelmingly likely to share the prize with the partner, even though he or she didn't have to do so.
These kids seemed guided by a strong, perhaps innate, drive toward fairness and cooperation. Deep down, they knew they should share their spoils — and the Albany Seven might be influenced by the same magnanimous impulses.
But this doesn't mean that they will be. There are definitely some psychological forces working in the opposite direction. For example, in general, research shows that people (incorrectly) assume more money — and more spending on themselves — will make them happier. And research also shows that when we receive an unexpected gift, we often rationalize our good fortune by telling ourselves that we somehow deserve it.
But studies also suggest this way of thinking is a quick ticket to unhappiness. Instead, they show that people are significantly happier when they practice gratitude — when they recognize and appreciate that the gifts they receive in life come from outside themselves, whether through the help of other people, a higher power or plain dumb luck.
Albany Seven, take note: Grateful people are happier, enjoy better health and have stronger relationships.
And what better way to appreciate a gift than to pay it forward?
Jason Marsh is the editor-in-chief of Greater Good, the online magazine published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. He's also a co-editor of the books "The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness" and "Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology."