I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Is Winning the Lottery a Bad Thing?
“When I win the lottery I will . . ” fill in the gap. Of course, we all know the odds of winning are phenomenally low, and for some people, hitting the jackpot was the worst thing that happened in their lives.
Lotteries: The Facts
- Americans spend about $70 billion a year on lotteries; that works out to $86 per person per month. This is more than is spent on movies, music, video games, books, and sports teams combined.
- Roughly 63 percent of the money collected by lotteries goes back to the winners, 27 percent is used to fund government services. The rest goes to pay commissions to retail sellers and fund lottery administration.
- Moneynation tells us that “People with incomes over $55,000 a year are the biggest group of lottery ticket purchasers at 44 percent, with those who make between $25,000 and $55,000 a year making up another 33 percent. Americans with incomes under $25,000 a year represent 23 percent of all lottery ticket buyers." But that's only part of the story. Poorer people spend a much higher proportion of their incomes on lotteries than richer folks.
- We all know about the odds of winning a lottery. Mega Millions, for example, carries a 1 in 302 million chance of hitting the jackpot. Some other random event odds include winning an Olympic gold medal, 1 in 662,000, dying in a plane crash, 1 in 11 million, or being born 1 in 5.5 trillion. But, if you are reading this, you beat phenomenal odds against being alive, and that's what keeps lottery players buying more losing tickets.
Happiness and Lottery Wins
“If I win the lottery, I'll be so happy.” Actually, you probably won't be after the initial blast of euphoria from realizing you'll never have to endure your boss's toxic mismanagement ever again wears off.
Researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts found that “as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness.”
Moving from a poky, cockroach-infested apartment to a 10,000-square foot house with parking for your Audi and Ferrari just means that the luxury mansion becomes your new normal.
There is a school of thought in psychiatry that suggests we all have a baseline of happiness that is hardwired into us by genetics. So, after the exhilaration of a massive stroke of good fortune diminishes, we return to this default level of happiness—or lack of happiness, as the case may be.
Writing about this in Psychology Today, Dr. Robert Puff describes a process known as “hedonic adaptation.” He uses this analogy: “I’m sure you can think of a time you indulged in a food that tasted delicious at first. The first bite was amazing. The second was pretty good. But, by the time you’ve stuffed yourself with it, you may find yourself repulsed by what was so scrumptious at the beginning.” He says a similar mechanism works with many lottery winners who revert to their set point of happiness.
However, it's instructive to keep in mind the words of the actor Mae West: “I've been rich, and I've been poor, and rich is better.”
Lottery Winnings Frittered Away
Writing for The Conversation, The Eclectic Economist comments that “studies found that instead of getting people out of financial trouble, winning the lottery got people into more trouble, since bankruptcy rates soared for lottery winners three to five years after winning.”
A Paris School of Economics study suggests an even worse outcome to what it calls “positive income shock.” A lottery win produces “changes in lifestyles which may well be prejudicial to health.” Some lottery winners hit the booze and drugs so hard they bring on an early death.
Herewith are a few people who had the misfortune to score big lottery wins:
- In December 1996, Denise Rossi won $1.3 million in the California Lottery but concealed her windfall from her husband of 25 years, Thomas. Within days, she demanded a divorce, as she was unwilling to share her loot with Thomas. But, according to The Los Angeles Times, “A Los Angeles family court judge ruled that she had violated state asset disclosure laws and awarded her lottery winnings to her ex-husband. Every penny.”
- By all accounts, Abraham Shakespeare was a sweet guy who gave away some of his $20-million Florida lottery winnings to people in need. However, some of the recipients of his gifts were just leeches, and when Dorice “Dee Dee” Moore came along with the idea of writing a book about those who took advantage of his kindness, he was receptive. Moore gained Shakespeare's confidence and persuaded him to transfer his money to her so she could protect it from greedy people. Shortly thereafter, Abraham Shakespeare vanished before turning up nine feet underground beneath a newly poured concrete slab. He had bullet wounds to his chest. Moore is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.
- Michael Carroll won £9.7 million ($13.1 million) in a British lottery in 2002. By 2012, not a penny was left. He went on a 10-year spending spree of drinking, drugs, prostitutes, and wild extravagance. He bought an eight-bedroom house and used it as party central with his mates holding demolition derbies on the grounds. Already a petty crook before his lottery bonanza, he ran into more trouble with the police, served time in prison, and earned the title “The Lotto Lout.” His marriage also failed. At last report, he was working in a cookie factory for minimum wage and said he was happy he'd left his life of debauchery behind him.
Lottery Winner Regrets
Abraham Shakespeare told his childhood friend, Robert Brown, “I'd have been better off broke.” In common with many lottery winners, he was being pestered by people who wanted money. “I thought all these people were my friends,” he said, “but then I realised all they want is just money.”
This is a common refrain echoed by Edward Ugel, author of the 2008 book Money for Nothing: One Man's Journey Through the Dark Side of Lottery Millions. He says, “Of the thousands of lottery winners I knew, a few were happy and a few lived happily ever after. But you would be blown away to see how many winners wish they'd never won.”
- Mathematics professor Joan R. Ginther won four multi-million dollar scratch-off lottery prizes over a 15-year period. The odds of this happening are one in 18 septillion (there are an estimated one septillion grains of sand in the world). Skullduggery is suspected; that, or Prof. Ginther figured out the algorithm that determined the location to which winning tickets were shipped.
- Billie Bob Harrell, Jr. won $31 million in the Texas Lottery in 1997. Within 20 months, he was divorced, ripped off by all and sundry, and had died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Before his suicide, he told a financial adviser, “Winning the lottery is the worst thing that ever happened to me,”
- According to a Bank of Montreal survey, 34 percent of Canadians plan to fund their retirement by winning the lottery.
- Author Anneli Rufus comments that “Sudden riches allow people to do dumb things on a much grander scale than they had the means to do before.”
- “Lottery Money Facts: Earnings, Spending, Stats and Advice.” Tom Gerencernov, moneynation.com, November 15, 2016.
- “34% of Canadians Plan to Retire by Winning the Lottery.” Graham F. Scott, Canadian Business, January 30, 2014
- “A Classic Psychology Study on Why Winning the Lottery Won't Make You Happier.” Melissa Dahl, HuffPost, December 6, 2017.
- “If I Just Won the Lottery, Life Would Be so Much Better.” Dr. Robert Puff, Psychology Today, July 26, 2017.
- “Revealed: Lottery Lout Tells how he Blew £10m Fortune and Ended up Sleeping Rough in Forest as He Hunted for Work.” Steve Smith, Daily Record, July 7, 2013.
- “Odds Are $1.5 Billion Powerball Winner Will End up Bankrupt.” The Eclectic Economist, The Conversation, January 12, 2016.
- “Ex-Wife Loses Big in This Game of Chance.” Ann W. O'Neill, Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1999.
- “Curse of the Lottery: Tragic Stories of Big Jackpot Winners.” Nicole Bitette, New York Daily News, January 12, 2016.
- “Lotto Death Curse.” Anneli Rufus, The Daily Beast, July 14, 2017.
- “Body of Lottery Winner Found Buried in Florida.” BBC News, January 30, 2010.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 11, 2021:
Yes, they didn't have a clear and definite idea as to what to do with the money won. They spend, and spend, and the money runs out.
E Randall from United States on October 10, 2021:
Great article, you have shed light on a lot of things involving the lottery. Most would think once you have won, your life will be on easy street. Nothing could be further from the truth. For some it is the worst thing that could have happened to them.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 10, 2021:
Rupert, the American lotto is not availaie here in Nigeria. But one can buy a ticket online. I have not. The Nigerian lottery has not temp me yet!? Lol!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 10, 2021:
That's exactly what my wife Linda and I agreed on but, like you, we would have to buy lottery tickets first, and we don't.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 10, 2021:
What a worthy thought. I would likewise if I buy a ticket and won.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 10, 2021:
As you have written, I have also heard some stories of people who wished that they had never won the lottery. We rarely ever buy a ticket. My dream would be to set up foundations to give the money to worthy causes should we ever win a large sum. Of course, we would first have to buy a ticket! Ha!
MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on October 09, 2021:
A nice article. Very well written and informative. Of course, I've often thought of what I would do if I won the lottery. We don't have the lottery in Alabama. It is before our state legislature, but they have yet to vote on it. Maybe they never will, so people drive across the state line into Florida to buy lottery tickets. I've seen interviews with people who handled their winnings wisely, and those who did not, and ended up worse off than before they won. That's really sad. I think I would fix up my house, donate to the church, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, then put the rest away for retirement.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 08, 2021:
Winning the loto is not a royal road of becoming rich.