This past Wednesday, Maryland math teacher Sarah Manchester became the third person in history to win the $1,000,000 jackpot on the rainbow-clad game show Wheel of Fortune. A string of lucky spins and cunning puzzle solutions — really, “Exceptional Wildlife Preserves”? — landed Manchester in the Bonus Round, poised to walk away a winner.

Even in the final moments, she kept her cool. The charity letters — R, S, T, L, N, and E — danced onto the board, and immediately the solution was obvious, as if the letters were already aglow in their boxes. Loud Laughter, Manchester exclaimed immediately: a fitting solution to what later ensued, after Wheel host Pat Sajak opened the envelope to reveal Manchester had struck gold. She was walking away a millionaire — the $17,490 she’d won leading up to it all but gravy.

Math teacher Sarah Manchester won a million dollars on a recent episode of Wheel of Fortune. Research says her happiness may be fleeting. Source: wheeloffortune, YouTube/screencap wheeloffortune, YouTube/screencap

After taxes, Manchester is likely to take home just north of $600,000. A hefty sum by windfall standards, the conventional wisdom would suggest Manchester’s celebration, under the shower of confetti, was solid indication of the happiness her winnings would bring. But a growing body of research suggests huge piles of cash — known more formally as “exogenous income” — may not lead to smiles. In fact, it could end in misery.

Winning large sums of money all at once is reserved for two occasions. The first are the Sarah Manchesters of the world — the game show jackpot winners who beat the slim odds and then the really slim odds, to win a million dollars or something in that neighborhood. But then there are the other winners, the safe crackers, who marshal the forces of darkness to be that “one” in “one in a billion,” and who have the terribly happy problem of deciding if they want nine figures up front or seven figures for the next four decades.

The lottery, researchers now argue, could be more of a curse than a blessing. “Those who win more on the lottery smoke more and engage in more social drinking, both of which are likely detrimental to general health,” wrote Bénédicte Apouey and Andrew E. Clark, economists at the Paris School of Economics, in a 2010 study. More money may produce a spike in happiness initially, but over time that effect fades.

The reason it fades involves a psychological phenomenon known as “adaptation level theory.” Each time something new and exciting happens in our lives, we feel a surge of pleasure. Our brains get a serotonin dump. A new pair of well-fitting jeans or a novelty check with six zeroes on it both promote happiness, and, for good reason, in different measure.

But adaptation level theory respects the relativity of happiness, too. It knows, for instance, that losing the use of your limbs won’t make you significantly unhappier, after you’ve had enough time to habituate yourself to the new normal. This was demonstrated most famously in a 1978 study involving 22 major lottery winners, 29 paralyzed accident victims, and 22 controls. In both experimental cases, people weren’t all that worse or better off than the controls. Once the major event was in the past, levels tended back toward a baseline.

“As predicted, lottery winners were not happier than controls and took significantly less pleasure from a series of mundane events,” the researchers wrote. Suddenly, the chore of washing dishes had turned to a sense of nostalgia, sweeping the floor romanticized. What was once a nagging burden now seemed, in hindsight, like a simple joy.

A bundle of other studies affirm the same outcome: Some money makes you happier than no money, but more money won’t necessarily make you happier than less. What happens to your health is largely a product of your current situation. How you spend now, in other words, without the huge pile of cash, will probably determine how you treat it once you’re sitting on top of it.

In 2009, for instance, researchers from Vanderbilt University and the University of Kentucky found people who won between $50,000 and $150,000 still didn’t resolve the debt they carried before winning. Roughly one percent of lottery winners go bankrupt each year, double the rate of the general population.

As for Sarah Manchester, the Silver Spring-native says she isn’t sure how she’ll spend the winnings. A sizable chunk will end up in the pockets of the colleges her kids eventually attend, but the remainder is up in the air. And it’s probably in little danger. Even before her win, Manchester was already calculating.

When Sajak asked if she’d been figuring out her chances all the while, she responded as any math teacher who’s worth her salt would: “I assessed that the probability was low, but even unlikely events sometimes happen!”