Winning the Lottery: Happiness or Misery?

A winning ticket may change your life, but not for the better

As the Mega Millions jackpot has swelled to a record $640 million, it’s got even the most cynical among us tossing our measly dollars into the ring and saying, “Why the hell not?”

Obscenely slim odds aside -- On All Things Considered, mathematician Aaron Abrams said the odds of winning (about 1 in 176 million) make you 100 times more likely to die of a flesh-eating bacteria -- some studies suggest that the real problem isn’t losing, but actually winning.

We all know that money can’t buy happiness -- at least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves when we’re not rolling in it -- but it can certainly buy a lot of other nice things, like the opportunity to start a new business or a summer house (or three) in Hawaii. And that financial freedom alone should lead to a little bit more enjoyment in life, right?

Maybe not.

A seminal 1978 study from Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts compared the happiness levels of lottery winners to non-lottery winners and paraplegic accident victims. Care to guess what they found? You guessed it: The non-lottery winners and, yes, even people who had suffered horrific, life-altering, paralyzing accidents, derived more pleasure out of everyday activities than the lottery winners did. The reason: Once you experience the greatest joy ever -- the thrill of becoming an instant millionaire -- nothing else can measure up. And, just like anything else in life, you get used to what you have. In psychology, it’s called habituation. In our circles, it’s the law of diminishing returns. Your new sofa/TV/sports car/job/shoes that you absolutely adore and get such a kick out of will bring you less and less joy over time. If I had all those 100 dollar bills littering my pockets, I’d probably ask the U.S. Treasury to dye them pink, you know, because I’d be so sick of looking at all that green.

Besides, once you can have anything you want, my guess is, it would make you pretty darn lazy. Humans need a sense of purpose and drive, and when you don’t have to work for anything, that probably throws a big wrench in your usual list of reasons for getting up in the morning.

Does that mean I’m not going to buy a lottery ticket? Hell, no. In my head I’ve practically spent the entire jackpot on my bucket list of zany adventures. If I win, you can look for pictures of me yawning at the top of Mount Everest: “Really? I just thought it would be taller somehow…” I’ll also probably start worrying about contracting that flesh-eating bacteria.

Tomorrow morning, should I not be that one in 176 million -- and I’m not saying I won’t -- you can likely find me taking comfort in the fact that lottery winners are miserable, wretched and cursed bunch, and I’ll be so glad I’m not among them (until the next big jackpot rolls around).

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