When you're down in the dumps and wishing you could go out to that bar and afford those $20 cocktails, it's easy to let your mind wander to the possibility of winning the lottery.
Enough signs are plastered all over towns and cities across the United States to remind you of how much money you could win. The strategy is simple enough: Play a few numbers, spend $2 and wait. The maximum reward from the minimum of work. What could be better?
While the trappings of an exuberant lifestyle might seem appealing, they come with a price, and not just one that ends in "millions."
A famous 1978 study aimed to find out how different subjects felt after experiencing one of two life-changing events: winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed after an accident. Two situations, two entirely opposite outcomes, right?
Researchers found that after becoming paralyzed in an accident or winning the lottery, moods completely leveled out back to their original state after approximately six months.
Humans can get used to almost anything. After a few months, not having control of your limbs doesn't seem that bad, and having millions of dollars doesn't seem that great, either. It's called habituation, and it ensures that you're never too depressed or too happy for too long. No feeling, negative or positive, lasts forever.
Those who won the lottery also fell victim to the contrast effect, or the idea that events in our lives don't have a set value, but rather are valued by comparing them to other events.
Lottery winners will find themselves wanting more outrageous things in life – hard drugs, exuberant vacations, hookers, etc. – because they can now afford them. When that money runs out, though, their values shift: Winning the lottery makes every other thing in their lives less enjoyable.
In the study, lottery winners rated how happy a few simple things, like a favorite book or a great cup of coffee, made them. Those happiness levels were significantly less than the happiness levels of the control participants who had not won the lottery. Becoming a multi-millionaire became so awesome that nothing else could possibly compare. Not even coffee.
Overall, happiness indeed spiked when people hit the jackpot, but if you were cynical about life before your paralyzing accident or before your newfound fortune, you'll still be cynical about life after.
Jack Whittaker, a man from West Virginia who won a $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002, experienced this happiness spike firsthand. Within the first few years, he gave millions of his winnings to charity and even used $14 million to start his own organization.
Soon, though, things turned sour. Someone broke into his car and stole his briefcase filled with $545,000 in cashier's checks and cash while he was parked outside of a strip club.
Later, someone else broke into his home and office. His granddaughter died under unknown circumstances, and he was arrested twice for drunk driving. By 2007, most of his money was gone.
“I wish I’d torn that ticket up," he told reporters.
Evelyn Baseshore from New Jersey was a convenience store manager before she won the mega-millions lottery, twice, in the mid-1980s. After collecting $5 million, she recalled being frequently confronted by people who wanted a share. “Everybody had their hand out,” she's quoted as saying.
Alex Toth from Florida won $13 million in 1990. Before his death in 2008, he'd faced fraudulent tax return charges and a divorce.
Billie Bob Harrell won $31 million in 1997. Like Whittaker, he donated lots of money to charities, but the stress of winning caused him so much anxiety that he split up his marriage and committed suicide.
The effects of the lottery, while unbelievable at first, diminish over time. Sure, you may have a few million dollars to spend on a lavish vacation to Bora Bora, but if you have fundamental problems managing your earnings, are unable to say "no," befriend dishonest people or fight with your spouse, no amount of money can fix any of those things.
Lottery winners are more likely to file for bankruptcy, experience newfound tensions among friends and family, and manage their savings less effectively. And normally, their winnings run out under five years. Then what?
If you really want to be happy with lots of money, try earning it instead. Those who feel successful at work are twice as likely to feel happy in everyday life. Earned success -- whether you define "success" as charity work or as money -- is the key to happiness.
Millions of dollars appearing out of nowhere will get you, well, nowhere.
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