(to not feel the need to fill in the blank)
When you read about lottery winners that end up broke, addicted, dead, and/or in trouble with the law, do you instantly think you could do better? That you have the charity, the financial savvy, the internal moral compass to guide you in making that happy life for yourself with seemingly endless unearned wealth? My money says that Jack Whittaker, already a self-made millionaire business owner when he won a payout of $93M , thought so, too. How wrong he was.
Why do we buy lottery tickets in the first place? It isn’t just because we are not very good at understanding statistics. We want something from the lottery; we want to feel that if only our numbers hit, life will be better. We will be happy. Our lives will be easy and worry will be a thing of the past. We get a little thrill and feel excitement just imagining the possibility. But is that accurate? Why do so many lottery winners succumb to drugs and alcoholism – is it just that they that don’t know how to handle money, or is it something deeper? What if the hope that money will make our lives better is the very thing that absolutely crushes us whether we happen to win or not?
Let’s play a little thought experiment. You win the lottery and after the initial orgasmic glow, you find yourself reverting to the same level of satisfaction with your life as before. And worse, you start to sink lower, because shouldn’t you feel great every day? You are rich, you won the lottery! All your dreams have come true, and yet…your friends and family have begun to resent you. Either you gave them some money and gifts or you didn’t, either way your relationships have all become monetized. Everyone is looking to get some happiness from you, and when it doesn’t magically keep happening like those first few days and weeks things start to sour. Your money problems from before might have vanished, but now you have new ones. What do you do with the money? How do you enjoy it without blowing it? Who gets what, and how do you protect it and yourself?
Maybe you are relatively sophisticated with the money, and you start to hang out with other rich people to avoid the problems associated with hanging out with your old friends and family. Do you start to envy the wealth and material possessions of your new friends? It’s human nature to compare yourself with the people you are around, and suddenly you find yourself unsatisfied with your lifestyle. So you begin to buy more things and try to increase your wealth to keep up. You resent the high taxes that are hindering the effort. You make yourself a victim of the socialist politicians and the less wealthy. Whatever you have, it is never enough.
Perhaps you start drinking to deal with the cognitive dissonance that in reality you aren’t happy with your life after winning the lottery. This clashes with the values and beliefs that you held when you bought that winning ticket, and all the tickets before that. If the drinking isn’t enough, you start to use drugs. Why not just change your values and beliefs? Your sense of self is a funny thing, it will go to great lengths to avoid admitting how wrong it’s been up to this moment. It will come up with multitude and increasingly complex justifications and explanations for your actions. Perhaps these things get you through the day, but they don’t make you happy.
Let’s imagine a best case scenario. You collect the money anonymously. No one knows you won, and you keep your day job. You just pay off your debt, give some of it to charity and fund your kids college fund and your retirement fund. Wait, why are you playing the lottery again? Couldn’t you be doing all of these things without winning the lottery? Why are you wasting time, money, and energy on something so completely superfluous? “But my debts are such a pain!” And what has changed within you since you got into those debts? You are mistaken if you think winning the lottery or even the fantasy of winning the lottery will provide a meaningful escape from those issues. Meaningful escape always implies changing yourself for the better through knowledge or good habits – the lottery offers neither. Reading post-modernist blog posts, on the other hand…well, it’s probably not that great either, to be honest.
We have sold ourselves a bill of goods, that playing the lottery is foolish because of the statistically miniscule chance of winning. But that’s still playing in the false narrative. We are still suggesting to ourselves that the wealth itself is good, and when we buy a ticket and feel that little rush, we are strengthening that misunderstanding. The correct realization is not that playing the lottery is financially unwise (though it is), but rather that winning will not make us happy in any lasting or meaningful way. Lasting and meaningful happiness is available whether we win the lottery or not, but it cannot coexist with the idea that money will automatically lead to it. We can cognitively understand this, but how do we bridge the gap between this understanding and the strength of conviction produced in us by our experience? We can only repeat the truth to ourselves endlessly and practice faking it until the force of habitual custom takes over.