Evelyne Lee

Each time there is a grand lottery jackpot, I cannot help but fantasize about what I would do with the money if I won and how my lifestyle would change. In lieu of the recent world record $2.04 billion lottery with a single ticket winner (which I did buy tickets for), I was led to think about the psychology of buying lottery tickets — why did I feed $30 into a one in 292.2 million chance?

To exaggerate my bewilderment, you are more likely to be crushed by a meteorite, to become the president of the United States or to become a billionaire on your own terms than to win the Powerball lottery. With these odds, I was left wondering what it is that causes people to buy tickets in the first place and what it was that made me feel so disappointed when I found out that I did not win the $2.04 billion jackpot, despite knowing that my chances of winning were essentially zero.

Much to our convenience, psychology has a couple answers to these questions. For instance, the availability bias is the idea that we hear about more success stories than failures, thus making it seem more likely that we will succeed since those are the examples we are exposed to the most. From a more scientific angle, the human brain did not evolve to understand or calculate ridiculously small probabilities. Though we are aware of the small probability’s existence, it is nonetheless difficult to visualize what one in 292.2 million even looks like. For this reason, we have a less dismal perspective of our own odds as we simply cannot comprehend them. Moreover, the immense payout of winning the lottery overrides the comparatively minuscule cost of the ticket, thus tricking our brains into taking the risk of throwing a couple dollars in the hole.

With that said, even though the cost of a lottery ticket is comparatively small to the lottery prize money, households making less than $12,400 per year spend roughly 5% of their total incomes on lottery tickets. Similarly, 28% of households making less than $30,000 per year buy lottery tickets at least once per week and spend an average of $412 per year on tickets. In comparison, households making over $75,000 per year spend an average of $105 per year on lottery tickets. Evidently, households with lower incomes play the lottery more so than those with higher incomes.

This is a notable discrepancy, as it leads us to evaluate some of the fundamental issues with the lottery itself — it is intentionally advertised more heavily in low-income areas and communities of Color, thus serving as a predatory system that exploits disadvantaged groups. Furthermore, much of the lottery revenue goes toward education, but disproportionately so, as it is funneled predominantly into wealthy districts.

These ideals only work to perpetuate income inequality, which further encourages political polarization and citizen mistrust, thus weakening our already fragile democracy. They are notable facets to be aware of so that we can work to propose solutions. My two cents? If the lottery is going to exploit those who are less fortunate, it seems as though there should be a system to make the chances of winning favor those people as well. 

Typically, the winning lottery numbers are drawn by the random mixing of numbered ping-pong balls. This process is televised such that viewers can see the process and rest assured that it is truly random. To ensure that this process slightly favors the numbers that were purchased by people who qualify as being below a predetermined income level, the lottery could be technologically revolutionized such that a computerized database holds information about which number combinations were purchased by which lottery player. For those who fall under the predetermined income threshold, the computerized random number generator could have a slightly higher probability of producing those players’ numbers.

Despite whether the system remains the same or changes to a more technologically savvy one, let us suppose you do beat the odds and win the Powerball jackpot. Imagine you have a couple hundred million dollars in the bank. Now, how will this impact you in actuality? Will money buy you happiness? Will winning the lottery change your life in leaps and bounds? 

Various studies show that lottery winners are not, in fact, happier. One of the more classic studies of this phenomenon shows that winners averaged a 4 out of 5 in terms of happiness, as opposed to the control group, which averaged 3.82 out of 5. Even more surprising, lottery winners were shown to be less satisfied by positive “mundane” events such as talking to a friend in their day-to-day lives.

These findings relate to the concept of hedonic adaptation, or the idea that eventually, all of our positive and negative feelings will stabilize and cause us to return to the baseline level of emotion after the high or low point “wears off.” This stabilization can even dip below the original baseline — for example, lottery winners become increasingly accustomed to a new, higher standard of what constitutes a positive event and thus are less likely to be satisfied with the current state of affairs.

With that said, it still seems difficult to believe that winning millions of dollars could not only fail to make you happier, but that such an event could actually decrease your baseline level of happiness. This is where the discrepancy between happiness and life satisfaction comes in.

Researchers from New York University and Stockholm University in Sweden found that winning large sums of money can positively impact financial satisfaction but does not necessarily correlate to other parts of life such as one’s relationships. Happiness varies from person to person, but is often associated with someone’s overall well-being at a moment in time, while life satisfaction is about having “what you think you can demand of life,” according to Erik Lindqvist, a professor of economics at the Swedish Institute for Social Research. In other words, wealth feels like something more realistically attainable than perfection in other aspects of life, such as relationships and health. In this way, money is something that can satisfy us but cannot make us happy.

So, winning the lottery might not make you happier and buying lottery tickets is like throwing your money into a trash can on the side of the street. But they do add a spark of hope, a little thrill of chance into our lives. To me, it is the childlike imaginative tendencies that come with holding a freshly printed lottery ticket in my pocket that make the game appealing. Will I win? Probably (almost definitely) not, but to hope and dream so wholeheartedly for something virtually impossible is rare in adulthood, and that is the redeeming and beautiful quality of the lottery.

Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at annatrup@umich.edu