I avoid the lottery as much as possible. That’s not exactly right, because “avoiding” the lottery makes it sound like intentional action. It isn’t. 98% of the time, it doesn’t take intentional action, the lottery is quite easy to ignore all on its own.
But occasionally, the prize gets so big that it’s impossible to ignore. It’s all over social media, and good old fashioned antisocial media too. People talk about it at work waiting for the coffee to brew, and at the soccer fields waiting for the kids’ practice to end. All of this attention drives the prize even higher.
“Did you get your lottery ticket?” becomes a perfectly legitimate conversation starter with a stranger in line at the grocery store.
“What would we do with all of that money?” becomes a perfectly legitimate conversation starter at the dinner table, followed by a brief lesson on probability for the wide-eyed kids, who’ve convinced themselves that a Lamborghini Diablo is in their near future.
Like everyone else, when the jackpot is big enough to be news, I buy a ticket. Because I’m scared I’ll win without one.
I have an irrational fear that my numbers will come up, but I won’t have a ticket.
Years ago, as I was falling asleep with the TV on, the lottery drawing came on. It was just a standard jackpot, but it initiated a panic attack. The first number caught my attention — 8, the day of my birth, our first child’s birth, and the digit I’ve adopted as my “lucky number.” Then came the second number — 31, my wife’s birthday. Then the third — 11, the month of my birth and the birth of our second child. Was I really lying in bed watching all of my lottery numbers get drawn, without a ticket in my hand? The fourth ping pong ball exited the chute — 9, the month of our anniversary and third child’s birth. I started to sweat, and felt a tightening in my chest. I reached for the Xanax. Then came the fifth number — 44. Whew. No significance there. Well, other than 44 being the number of my favorite baseball player as I was growing up — young and naive enough to believe that athletes were heroes — Cincinnati Reds center fielder Eric Davis. But that was quite a stretch. There are a dozen more meaningful numbers I’d pick before ever getting around to 44.
I hadn’t won the lottery.
Thank goodness, because I didn’t have a ticket.
Ever since, I’ve managed to ignore the lottery, not giving it much of a second thought. But occasionally, that’s impossible. There was a recent jackpot that exceeded, or came darn close to exceeding, $1 billion. Largest jackpot ever, impossible to ignore.
The day of the drawing, I bought my ticket. With my numbers.
Birthdays and anniversaries — my numbers.
At the dinner table, we talked about what we would do with all of that money. 11-year old son decided we’d buy an English Premier League football team — preferably Sunderland or Everton (who just so happened to be looking for a primary investor). Middle child — always the pleaser — 8-year old son decided to give it to our church. 6-year old son decided to use it to buy Snoopy. Whatever that meant, I was pretty sure we’d be able to afford it. My wife and I even got caught up in the daydreaming — it’s near impossible not to. We joked, and laughed. And our oldest said, “You know, I read that that kind of money corrupts people, so maybe we shouldn’t have even bought a ticket.”
I don’t know where he read that, but he’s probably right.
Happiness is a popular topic among social scientists. Studies are done. Books are written. More studies are done. Who’s happier — left- or right-sided brain people? Which make you happier — cats or dogs? What ice cream flavor makes you the happiest?
Some of these studies are reputable. A couple of them caught my attention recently. In one of them, Princeton researchers determined that beyond an annual income of $75,000 for a family of four, money doesn’t add to our level of happiness. This $75,000/year seems to be the magic number — certainly not enough to fund every fantasy or satisfy every earthly desire, but enough to pay the mortgage, feed and clothe everyone, and maybe take a yearly vacation to the beach or the mountains. Below this income level, money apparently can buy some amount of happiness. Above it, not so much.
In another study that’s almost 40 years old, researchers found evidence for a “happiness baseline.” Studying long-term happiness, they found negligible statistical difference in the happiness levels of lottery winners and amputees. While winning the lottery typically resulted in a short-term “happiness boost,” happiness dropped in the following years to pre-lottery levels. Similarly, while losing a limb to an illness or accident led to a short-term drop in overall happiness levels, victims returned to their original levels of happiness over time.
This is fascinating. Over time, someone with 5% of the wealth and 75% of the limbs of someone else can be just as happy. Maybe even more so.
Back at the dinner table, things had taken a turn for the worse. Oldest son was angry — he’d just been told that despite our imagined billionaire status, he would still need to finish fifth grade (and probably even more schooling than that). Middle son was crying — he’d realized that all this talk of a new mansion on the beach meant we’d sell the house we lived in currently, apparently the only house he ever wanted to live in. Youngest son was even upset — worried that Snoopy would die because we had no idea how to feed a cartoon dog.
Everyone eventually calmed down. Our oldest realized he’d actually miss school, especially seeing all of his friends every day. We convinced the middle one that we weren’t going to move, and if we ever did we’d look for a house with a swimming pool. We assured the youngest that someday we’d get another dog — a real one that we know how to feed. Our oldest reminded us that that kind of money corrupts people.
I’m terrified of winning the lottery. But maybe it isn’t because I’m afraid my numbers will come up and I don’t have a ticket. Maybe it’s really because in lots of ways, especially the important ones, I’ve already won.