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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.

Categories: Philosophy, Social Science, Stoicism.

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13 Responses

  1. Nachlasse2012-12-18 @ 16:22

    Hmm. Interesting post Frugal. As always, I sort of thing you might be misunderstanding things a little.

    A considerable majority of people who play the lottery consists of the poor. To them, trying to pay for their next meal is a constant worry, rent, mortgage, etc. When they dip their hands into the honey pot, that is to say purchase a lottery ticket, I honestly doubt that they’re thinking about everlasting meaningfulness.

    Perhaps that’s what your article is trying to say, that even if you’re poor, there is more meaning to life than to think about your next meal, and perhaps through this better stoic life – life is better.

    I’ve kind of done extensive research on the poor (not to let it hang as some kind of authorial badge), and most poor people live in a short-term world precisely because of the unstability within their environment and their limited resources to make long term plannings. To them, the only kind of meaning in life they can afford is short term, that is to say engage in pure hedonism or consumerism since you might never live long enough till tomorrow. This is their meaning in life, and it’s not a judgment but an observation.

    This is also why if they do win the lottery, money is gone in an instant. But for that few days/weeks, it has been the most meaningful for them.

    Maybe I’ve misread your post. Let me know where I went wrong or perhaps what you think about what I said.

  2. Nachlasse, I think you are missing something very basic. When you ask poor people (or anyone else) what they want out of life, what is the most common answer? To be happy. When the poor or anyone else dip into their finite funds to buy a lottery ticket, it is ultimately because they think that winning the lottery, or even the mere possibility of winning, will make them happier. But is this true, regardless of the level of financial sophistication?

    Was it meaningful for Jack Whittaker or his granddaughter as they blew through those millions? Or was it not meaningful at all, which is why drugs, alcohol, and strippers entered the picture?

    So your point, that the hypothetical poor person isn’t thinking about everlasting meaningfulness is exactly my point. They (and we) think the path to happiness is through unearned wealth, and this is an unexamined assumption. This is also the position of wealthy people who want their children to inherit all of their wealth. I hate to link to the daily fail, but it’s easy to see the same results if you look for them:

  3. Nachlasse2012-12-18 @ 19:14

    Frugal, you know our respect is mutual and indeterminate to whatever we say.

    I honestly think you’ve gotten off the wrong foot. “To be happy” is never “To be happy.” We all know that.

    When the poor person says that they want to be happy, what does that entail specifically? What are they fantasizing about when they say they want to be happy? What is happiness to him? Would we agree that he might be fantasizing about lots of food, lots of clothes, without worry about his home being taken away, a warm shelter whatever.

    It could also mean happiness by way of identification – that I get out of the slums and make it big so I can represent my whole city/area/street.

    The reasons for buying the lottery then would consist in winning the money, not being happy per se. Which is your point exactly, that money doesn’t make you happy, its not meaningful.

    Which comes back to what I was saying, what is meaningful to those people? What if spending all that money in such a short time is meaningful to them? Imagine that it really is – that to spend all that money is what they’ve always wanted to do since they were young. Drugs, alcohol and strippers are exactly what is meaningful to them.

    your idea of meaningful is of an unmaterial possibly spiritual stoic kind of way, and you’re saying that since everybody else’s meaningfulness involves hedonism, it really isn’t meaningful, its an unexamined practice that isn’t really meaningful at all.

    Okay, let me put it like this. We have no idea if spending money on drugs alcohol and strippers in meaningful to them, it might be, it might not. Now here is the real problem. In today’s society, why is it so fascinating to click through all of this dailymail nonsense that talks about people who win lotteries or people who have money turn homeless. There is really no doubt to this – hate. “Ha! See these douchebags that don’t earn their own money eventually come to their fall while we the people who work hard for it and earn the money ourselves have real skills, real life wisdom that triumphs all of those douche bags.”

    But this is the problem – not all of them become poor and spend their money on drugs and alcohol. I know tons of insanely rich people that spend money on themselves, not even on shit like drugs and alcohol, and they’re perfectly happy. They’re making wise decisions that are not going to destroy their future and their money. Of course the dailymail doesn’t have those kinds of articles. But it really doesn’t matter.

    I’m really lost right now. But my last point is what if for these people, spending money on weed and strippers are meaningful? What then?

  4. I dislike trying to suss out what hypothetical poor people think or want. They can speak for themselves. Since you and I are here, let’s stick with ourselves.

    Can you yourself imagine a meaningful existence focusing on drugs, alcohol, and so on? If not, what’s the appeal for you and me? The relative meaningless of pleasure for its own sake. But we’re an adaptable species, aren’t we. Whatever level of pleasure that might attend that nice initial rush, afterwards it takes more and more to achieve any sort of “high,” and this is true for drugs or shopping.

    Whether we are talking about a fulfilling life in the Stoic or Existentialist frameworks one thing is certain, nothing good is obtained without struggle. Now, you bring up happy rich people you know, and with good reason. I don’t think wealth is in itself bad, but are they truly happy because of their wealth or something else? Aren’t they happy (or not) due to their character and focus? And if they focus solely on the wealth, aren’t they miserable? Drugs and so on provide a temporary escape (similar to the dream of winning the lottery), but ultimately lead to a regrettable existence.

    One last thought about the daily mail and all the gossip rags out there. Yes, there is definitely schadenfreude involved in the popularity of such things. But there’s another lesson to learn here. We constantly tell ourselves that money, prestige, possessions and on and on will make us happy, but the proof to the contrary is in every grocery checkout aisle. Those aren’t windows for us to gawk and cluck about the douchebags over there, they are mirrors to see the lies we tell ourselves.

  5. the house2012-12-26 @ 17:30

    This post reoriented my thinking (I’m one of those people who doesn’t buy lottery tickets b/c of statistics). Thanks FrugalStoic!

  6. philosoholic2013-02-25 @ 08:51


    Winning the lottery has a series of bad precedents, in terms of what happens to many of the winners that I’ve heard of. But can I imagine myself winning the lottery? Of course. Do I think it would make me happy? No, but money can give things like freedom from certain obligations, and this would be quite nice. Can I imagine winning, sharing my winnings with my family, paying off my debts, and being able to afford a nice house in paris or nyc, as well as a stable income that would allow me to train for any job I love? Yes. Can I do these things now? Not even close. I can clearly work towards them (although the brownstone in brooklyn or the house in Belleville are not probable outcomes).

    But this is fundamentally about money and how we relate to it. It doesn’t grant happiness, but it can free one up from tasks that aren’t enjoyable (cleaning my house, driving in traffic) and make things that aren’t currently easily accessible available to me and mine (quality childcare, available babysitters, music and language tutors that might come teach at home, etc..).

    It seems like the issue isn’t sudden money, but rather the fact that individuals that are suddenly rich might have no idea what to do with themselves and spend it on goods and experiences they have been ‘told’ they want, rather than those things they have figured out they actually enjoy.

  7. Nice to see you on the site philosoholic,

    I think you’re right, however Frugal seems to be saying that people equate having money with pure bliss – and that is false since money poses some problems whereas it relieves others. you might hire someone to do the dishes for you, but the problems come when you don’t trust people since you have a new found acquired wealth, etc.

    Also, drawing a fine distinction between thing we’re told we want and things we truly enjoy is a dangerous line. I don’t think this line exists at all, but that seems to be the whole problem in the first place, that the money gives you the premise that there is a line you can distinguish. When you do get the money, maybe it’s then you realise you can’t distinguish the line = no line at all, that is when you become miserable.

    Frugal won’t say the things I’m saying, he’ll talk about how stoicism leads to happiness, etc, etc, so be sure to wait for his virtue filled reply ;)

  8. philosoholic2013-02-26 @ 07:39

    Thanks Nachlasse,

    There is no clear line separating intrinsic from extrinsic desires, and clearly some feedback loops between these. I take the point, although I fail to see why this would be despair-inducing. I’ll re-frame what I was trying to say.

    We have fundamental appetites, drive towards pleasure and away from pain, and call these desires when we’re aware of them. We feel pleasure when something makes us stronger, increases our perfection. And we feel pain when something makes us weaker, decreases our perfection. So far, so Spinoza.

    Now, the kinds of sources of pain and pleasure that are accessible to us are dependent on our context (facticity). Inherently then, there isn’t anything I want that is imposed on me any more than there is a desire for anything I want that stems from me in some unadulterated original way. I may feel hunger, but that will translate into desire for some kind of food I know of (hungry? get a snickers!)
    Desires are desires for a change in context (more love, more cars, fewer dirty dishes, better kung-fu or helicopter piloting skills, etc..). At a very fundamental level, it isn’t possible to be continuously content as we are, because our desires(conatus in Spinozaspeak). are what drive our existence.We are desiring machines.

    Furthermore, our identities aren’t self-originated because we react to others in creating ourselves. We’re either for something our against something, or some recombination of these. There is no ‘I’ independent of the models of becoming that surround me that I can choose from. So the kinds of desires I have relate to the kind of person I want to be, and this is other-based.

    So what’s the point? Well, that while there might not be a clear-cut line separating desires that stem from within from those imposed on us from without, there are desires for things/actions/skills that conform to our our plan for ourselves. We have desires about the kinds of people we wish to be, desires about the kinds of desires we want to have (or not have- I rather wish I didn’t love smoking sometimes, especially when this comes into conflict with my desire to please my non-smoking partner).
    Advertising is a simple appeal to refocus your first order desires or the premise that your second order desires are misplaced.

    So, winning the lottery- a boon if you have some notion of what kinds of desires you want to have, a fairly strong idea of what project you have for yourself. A bane, I imagine, if you don’t have a well defined project and buy into the types of desires that are pitched to you from others wholly uninterested in your being as anything more than a customer.

  9. philosoholic2013-02-26 @ 07:41

    Hum, I think this blog would benefit from an edit button. I already wish I had been clearer and more specific..

  10. I very much appreciate reading your responses. I would say that money is always a tool, and the good or bad enters in with how it is used. But what would you say about hedonistic adaptation? Doing the dishes may not seem like fun, and the first week or month or even year you don’t do it may increase your happiness, but don’t we return to the base level happiness after that?

    Regarding desire, I don’t know enough Spinoza to effectively discuss this perhaps, but do all desires improve our perfection? Rather than a snickers, wouldn’t plain nuts and fruit lead more to our perfection? Isn’t the desire for salty/sweetness over more healthy things somewhat destructive?

    Likewise, the love of money for it’s own sake weakens me, I would say. Healthy desire would be something like desiring not to have the desire for money. To desire the healthy options whether we are talking about food or the pursuit of knowledge rather than mindless TV (or websurfing). These are the desires that can always be fulfilled if we monitor them. Desiring the right things, namely our appropriate response to whatever our situation might be, leads to the best possible level of fulfillment.

  11. Ah, a Spinozist on the site! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, after all we’re substantially similar. Wait a sec, facticity? Project? A Heideggerean too? I can tell you’ll feel just right at home here.

    I agree with everything you’re saying, but I think Frugal’s larger point is that desire in itself is never really desire. I actually agree with him here. I won’t speak for him, but in my perspective the desires must and will never end. Once it ends, melancholy. But it doesn’t matter, the lottery won’t end those desires anyway, it’ll simply propagate it further. Here, I accord with Frugal that winning the lottery isn’t going to really change anything substantially (no Spunoza intended).

    Frugal will mention how base or plain desires are the best, and that is where I veer away from his thoughts. I think desires are desires, any kind of wanting of baser/plainer is still a desire, which is not better, but equal to the desire of a promotion and all that.

    The edit button is missing (I think) because we don’t want Russian spammers to edit their comments and post their wares over here.

Got insight?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] There are two lies there, but he only focuses on one – hence the anger. It’s true that the vast majority of commerce sells you the lie that they have just the thing to make you feel like a rock star, but the second and more insidious lie is that fame and riches would lead to happiness and fulfillment. Are money and fame ultimately meaningful? Do millionaires and movie gods and rock stars really live better lives, or are they on average as miserable (and happy) as the rest of us? I could quote you the satisfaction studies that show making over $75,000 a year ceases to increase happiness, but you won’t be convinced by statistics. In your mind you think yourself immune to hedonistic adaptation. Perhaps you should try a thought experiment. […]