On Wednesday, Jan. 13th, three winners, one in California, one in Florida, and one in Tennessee, won a Powerball jackpot of over $1.5 billion dollars, the largest jackpot in the history of the lottery. People were in a downright frenzy to buy a ticket, standing in line for hours and spending upwards of $500 at a time. So many tickets had been bought that, on the night of the drawing, 85% of all possible number combinations had already been purchased. My friends and family kept telling me, often unsolicited, what they would do with a billion dollars, and they always got this dreamy look in their eyes as they spoke. I listened, amused, and asked questions. “What is the first thing you would buy?”, “How much would you give away, if any?” Eventually, they would always ask me, “What would you do with it?”
When faced with this question, part of my mind instantly flits to Mr. Burns (from the Simpsons) and his bucket list, which included such niceties as: “buy every first edition comic book that exists and burn them all at Comic-Con” and “donate $50 million to fund a study on why poor people are starving.” In all reality, though, I know exactly what I would do with all that money. I would panic.
Many have heard the horror stories of what happens to people when large amounts of money are suddenly dropped in their laps. The addict who blew $14 million in eight years on sex and drugs. The gambler who gave $5.4 million right back. The Florida man who was murdered and found under a concrete slab. The Texas man who won $31 million and committed suicide less than two years later. The West Virginian man who won nearly $315 million and had his car broken into twice, discovered a plot to drug and rob him, had his granddaughter and her boyfriend die of drug overdose, got a DUI, and was sued twice. Even last week, while I was dining at a scholarship luncheon, one of the donors shared that his sister-in-law won $3 million and was divorced within the year.
A 2007 study by the Journal of Academic Psychology showed that winning the lottery tends to exaggerate the life you already have. Are you a happy person with a strong sense of family, a trusted social circle, and a generally sunny disposition? Then winning the lottery will likely benefit you overall. But if you are chronically depressed, in a struggling relationship, or have hostile relations with family, these issues cannot be cured by a crate of money. In fact, they often get worse.
I have my demons, as does everyone. But I have been working tirelessly for the past four years to get my Bachelor’s degree and land a great job that pays well. I find happiness in setting challenging goals and slowly working towards them. To have that kind of money thrown at me, money I didn’t earn… why would I go to school anymore? Why would I work anymore? Why would I do anything except find ways to spend my money?
My incentives would be gone. My sense of personal achievement would be diminished. I wouldn’t feel the pride of a person who has amassed a fortune through ability and diligence or even the diminished, yet reflected, pride of inheriting wealth from a family member. My fortune would be the money of others, not given to me voluntarily, but handed over with the hope that they could win what I, instead, did. Franklin Roosevelt claimed that “happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” Being handed all that money would give me no joy of achievement, because I would have achieved nothing but random luck, nor the thrill of creative effort, because I would have created nothing except a money-hungry feeding frenzy.
A 2010 study by Princeton University showed that happiness increases linearly with income up to $75,000 a year. After that, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and happiness increases no further. It seems that at some point, you simply have enough money.
I don’t make $75,000 a year or anywhere near it, but I’m doing alright. I can afford my monthly Audible subscription, and who can be unhappy when there are still Game of Thrones books left to listen to? I can pay—albeit begrudgingly—my monthly Comcast bill, so I can laugh at new episodes of Workaholics and reruns of Futurama. I can buy my niece Frozen dolls from Walmart that sing loudly over and over and over again and then send her home to her mom with them. I don’t need a billion dollars, but neither do you. No one needs a billion dollars. But I also don’t want a billion dollars.
My friend Alex recently won $50,000 playing the lottery. She promptly paid off her credit card debt, her car, and most of her student loans. She also splurged on a $10,000 bed. She still has to work, still has to go to school, and still has financial goals. I bought a Powerball ticket because I wanted to participate in something so historic and I, like everyone else, want to win free money. Just not too much of it.