In the context of rapidly expanding betting and gambling markets, it is important to understand the relationship between gambling behaviors and wellbeing. The harm relating to excessive gambling has been well documented in terms of both the private costs (to individuals) and social costs (to society). The disruption caused by compulsive gambling to individual welfare was recognized in 1980 when the American Psychiatric Association formally acknowledged pathological gambling as a defined ‘Disorder of Impulse Control’, setting out criteria in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III (DSM-III) (American Psychiatric Association 1980). Since then, a number of updates to the DSM-III screen have occurred, alongside a number of variations to this inventory. Psychometrically sound gambling disorder screens incorporate detailed behavioral traits. The multidimensionality of clinically based screens is illustrated by the fact that they typically cover criteria such as being preoccupied with gambling, the need to gamble increasing amounts of money, chasing losses, irritability when not gambling, escapism, denial of behavior to family, committing crime to support the activity, disruption to relationships and financial stress. Evidence suggests that acute pathological gambling is one of the most difficult disorders to treat (Volberg 1996). Hence, it is probable that gambling behaviors will impact negatively on an individual’s wellbeing. Moreover, it is possible to measure subjective wellbeing through the utilization of general/overall happiness scales. This paper will empirically investigate the statistical association between gambling behavior and wellbeing through the utilization of a happiness scale and two measures of gambling behavior (i) the DSM-IV gambling disorder inventory and (ii) the problem gambling severity index (PGSI).
Gambling participation poses an interesting conundrum for behavioral researchers. Given that the expected return from a gamble is negative, rational economic agents ought to choose not to participate. Gambling is economically illogical; yet people gamble. A common solution offered to this irrationality problem is to posit a utility-enhancing, non-pecuniary component to gambling participation, which ensures that the net effect of gambling participation on utility is positive and therefore welfare enhancing. Economists refer to this as the expected ‘utility plus fun framework’.Footnote 1 The dream function literature suggests that gambling is wellbeing/happiness enhancing through the selling of hope, the buying of a dream, and the like, thus facilitating escapism (see, for example, Conlisk 1993; Simon 1998). Consistent with this behavioral decision-making approach to understanding gambling participation, the gambling industry keenly portrays gambling as a happiness-generating (utility-giving) leisure activity. Gambling advertising focuses on the thrill of the win and the life-changing aspects of big wins. Images of smiling people at casino tables or gaming machines are common. But given the potential for harm, is it really the case that gambling is wellbeing enhancing? Are gamblers happier than people who abstain from gambling? In the expected utility plus fun framework, individuals with a taste or preference for gambling activities will continue to participate up to the point at which they no longer derive positive utility from this activity, that is, when the fun component of the gambling activity (the positive psychological effects) is insufficient to compensate for the negative expected return of the gamble. At that point we would expect to see them switch (substitute) to alternative leisure activities. However, given that gambling is potentially addictive and defined as an impulse control disorder, whereby gambling becomes a compulsive activity, it is probable that addicted individuals may not be able to transfer their consumption to other activities/products if the impulse to gamble is sufficiently strong. Hence, they may continue to participate in gambling activities beyond the point at which their participation stops generating positive utility. In other words, those with a gambling disorder will be unable to control the impulse to gamble despite the irrationality of this behavior from a wellbeing perspective (which is inconsistent with the traditional economic utility maximization theory of consumption).Footnote 2 Incorporating addiction affects suggests that they may gamble past the point at which subjective wellbeing declines, suggesting an inverse relationship between gambling disorder and subjective wellbeing.
From an applied research perspective, a useful development in the science of quantifying wellbeing has been the focus on subjective wellbeing. Here we concentrate on the measure of subjective wellbeing that relates to an individual’s overall happiness with his/her life—that is, a global, context-free, definition of life satisfaction. The literature developed over the past two decades, in particular, has established statistical consistencies that validate the use of ‘happiness with life’ scales as a robust measure of wellbeing (see, among others, Diener 1994). The literature on the socioeconomic determinants of ‘happiness with life’ is also well developed (for a review, see Dolan et al. 2008). Subjective wellbeing as a measure of quality of life is a psychological standard, yet much of the literature has focused on the depression and other negative psychologies. The rational for this is that by reducing negative emotions we can increase quality of life. Empirical research generally supports the notion of a significant association between gambling and depression. For instance pioneering studies (see, e.g., Blaszczynski et al. 1990; McCormick et al. 1984; Törne and Konstanty 1992) provide evidence of a positive association between gambling and depression. More recent studies include (Blanco et al. 2012; Moghaddam et al. 2015; Quigley et al. 2015; Savron et al. 2001) among others. However, mental health is a complex mixture of both negative and positive emotions. Studying the relationship between gambling and positive psychology allows us a direct way to understand the impact on positive feelings of happiness and life satisfaction. To understand the full the impact of gambling on mental health we need to examine the impact on both the negative and positive psychology of gamblers. Hence, understanding the relationship between subjective wellbeing and gambling behaviors is just as important as understanding the relationship with depression. Moreover, while negative and positive emotions are likely to be correlated it is not the case that there is prefect correlation, that is, it is not the case that happiness is the inverse of depression. For example, see Zheng (2016) for a study of the correlation between subjective wellbeing and depression.
In relation to gambling behaviors, there are a few studies that have empirically investigated the proposition that gambling generates happiness; but most of the literature is focused on a particular form of gambling and often the samples only contain gamblers. Results showing positive effects of recreational gambling have been reported in studies of the elderly. For example, Vander Bilt et al. (2004) recorded emotional responses (such as, smiling) while individuals were engaged in the act of simulated gambling on a laptop, offered a choice between playing slot machines, standard video poker, roulette, blackjack or craps. Studies of this nature focus on mood enhancement, arousal and excitement generated by gambling participation but have less to say in terms of the longer-terms effects on overall happiness. Dixon et al. (2010), in a study that also considered the elderly, found that participation in bingo, outside the home, was positively associated with happiness. However, the discussion of their results focused on social support as the explanation for this observation (given the known issues around social isolation facing this particular age group), as opposed to the consumption value (the ‘fun’) of the gambling activity.
Studies that employ a gambling inventory to capture gambling behaviors include that of Ohtsuka et al. (1997), who showed that happiness is inversely related to scores on the South Oaks Problem Gambling Screen (SOPGS) among a sample of gaming machine (pokies) players in Australia. The SOPGS is a gambling disorder screen designed to discriminate between different sub-clinical levels of gambling behaviors. The study surveyed gaming machine gamblers upon exit from a gaming venue. Respondents were surveyed immediately after participating in the act of gambling so it is unclear whether mood enhancement or impacts on wellbeing were being captured. Furthermore, given that this was a sample of gamblers only, for a particular form of gambling, it is hard to generalize the results.Footnote 3 In a Japanese population-based sample, Shiue (2015) found that self-reported gambling addicts were most likely to report fair to poor self-rated health and fair to poor self-rated happiness relative to the rest of the population, but the survey instrument used to capture gambling disorder in these data was based on self-reporting of addiction, which is likely to under-record the number of addicts, relative to a screening instrument, given that denial is a common factor associated with a gambling disorder.
At the extreme, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and suicides themselves can be considered clear indicators of a lack of happiness or satisfaction with one’s life and there is a body of literature that examines the relationship between suicide, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in relation to gambling behaviors. For example, Petry and Kiluk (2002) conducted a study of pathological gamblers which revealed high suicide rates; and Newman and Thompson (2003) undertook a population-based study in which mental illness was found to be a mediating factor. From a policy perspective, Phillips et al. (1997) suggest that legalized gambling leads to elevated suicide levels in local populations and among visitors to locations associated with high levels of gambling activities. However, given that suicide is somewhat different from subjective wellbeing (although clearly associated), we recognize this body of literature but do not discuss it further.
This paper contributes to the extant literature by investigating the relationship between gambling behaviors and happiness, in a large, population-based sample. This allows us to understand the longer-term effects on overall general happiness with life, rather than the immediate impact on mood. Where individuals are not being observed in the act of gambling, it is necessary to utilize a screening instrument to capture the degree of addiction/attachment to gambling activities. Here we employ the DSM-IV gambling disorder inventory, and the PGSI and we know of no other published work that relates either the DSM-IV or PGSI directly to general happiness. This dearth in the literature may in part be due to the paucity of data that contains information on both subjective wellbeing and gambling addiction measures. Population-based surveys often ask respondents about their frequency of participation, duration of participation or gambling expenditure, and these variables have been used to measure gambling behaviors. However, Walker (1989) suggests that if the central motivation of gamblers is the desire to win money rather than the pleasure intrinsic to the activity itself, then simply losing too much money falls short of the criteria necessary to define an addictive state. This raises an important point: attachment to the gambling market is a multifaceted concept, the principle components, or domains of behavior, of which are captured most accurately by gambling disorder screens. Gambling behavior (measured according to dependency or possible harm) can be summarized by an individual’s score on a gambling disorder screen. A low score represents low levels of dependency on gambling and a high score represents levels of gambling dependency that lead to disruption and harm in the individual’s life. Population-based studies have the added advantage of allowing us to observe the full range of gambling behaviors, from abstainers through to pathological gamblers. Here we consider both the DSM-IV gambling disorder inventory (which has been designed primarily to identify clinically diagnosed gamblers from other types of gamblers and abstainers) and the PGSI (which is designed specifically for population based surveys, to discriminate between different types of gambling behaviours at both the clinical and sub-clinical levels of addiction).