A couple of week ago, I had some Twitter discussion about lottery winners. The impetus was the horrible story of Jack Whittaker, a very successful businessman who won the powerball lottery and watched his life go completely to hell. It’s a truly tragic story, especially for those of us who are fathers and enjoy indulging our daughters. Not only did he descend into booze-fueled chaos, he ended up divorced with both his daughter and granddaughter dead.
Whittaker’s story may be extreme but it is not that unusual. Just in the last week, another story broke about a lottery winner who was likely murdered by someone close. Scientific research on the subject is, at best, mixed. But even that doesn’t capture the fullness of the issue: it’s possible that lottery winners are, on balanced, happier. But it seems like they have an increased chance for the lives to go horribly wrong.
Why does this happen? Two reasons, I think.
First, money changes the people around you. Dave Chappell talked about this a lot: how the fame and fortune brought by his wildly successful show made him distrust the people around him, made him worry that no one would criticize him because of his money.
There’s also a huge difference between someone who earns money through their own means and someone who has a ton of money dropped on them from space. The Whittaker article talks about star athlete and how many of them burn out at younger levels because they can’t handle the fame and fortune. Those who do succeed surround themselves with good people early on so that they have a “team” of people they can trust to look out for their interests, usually people who have been around wealth and fame before and so aren’t phased by it.
Second, money also affects people themselves. Sudden surges in income can produce sudden surges in spending to match. There’s a theory, often propounded by Clark Howard, that people are mentally calibrated for a certain amount of wealth. And when they suddenly get more income, they spend to get themselves back to that familiar frame of reference. It takes time for them re-calibrate and realize that they don’t have to spend every penny. Indeed, this is one of the things that keeps poor people poor: when they do get some money, they instantly blow it because they are so used to money just disappearing. Most of the lottery winners have never had a lot of money or income before. They are not used to the idea of putting money away. And so they revert quickly to bad habits — buying cars, houses and shady business deals.
You combine these two and you get the real problem: wealth and fame — like many other things in life — put strains on a person. If the person is already psychologically strong and has surrounded themselves with good people, money can bring happiness and fulfillment. But if they have character flaws — really big character flaws — they will crack and crumble like a faulty bridge. This is especially true of a sudden unexpected fortune. Looking over the story I linked above, you see Whittaker simply indulging himself and everyone around him — lavishing gifts on his granddaughter, buying expensive cars, leaving cash lying around, throwing money at everything: precisely the behavior one is not supposed to engage in.
The gripping hand is that people who are psychologically strong and have surrounded themselves with good people tend not to play the lottery. Lottery is well-known to be the vice of the poor; state lotteries are a heavily regressive tax. And, generally, people who are happy and balanced aren’t looking for the escape hatch that the lottery provides. Obviously, that’s a generalization: plenty of happy people play the lottery. But they’re doing it mostly for fun. They’re not doing it in the hopes that it will rescue their lives or solve all their problems. They might play, but they also know that wealth and happiness is more likely to come to them through good living, reliable friends, hard work and perseverance. If they win the lottery, that’s gravy on a life that is already well-lived.
So would I like to win the lottery (if I played)? Well, if it were a modest amount, sure. Enough to pay off my house or squirrel away for retirement. Maybe even enough that I could write full time. But I can’t help but think that suddenly crashing into a LOT of money — millions or hundreds of millions — would expose my own character flaws, would expose those of the people around me, would allow me to indulge my own daughter as much as possible.
I don’t play but if someone bought me a lottery ticket and it won (my mother, most likely), I’d probably donate a significant fraction to charities. I’d endow chairs for my wife and I at a chosen university. I’d establish trusts for a handful of people. And that would pretty much be it. I’m not into fancy cars; my practical Camry is just about the perfect car for me. I don’t want a huge house — maybe something newer and less drafty than my current residence. And while I might like to play around with some business ideas, I would only do those if I could stand to lose the entire investment (which is what usually happens).
Hell, I probably wouldn’t even quit my job, no matter how much I won.
It was Robert Heinlein, I think, who said that most Americans don’t want to be rich. They don’t want the single-minded devotion that real wealth accumulation usually requires. What they want to be is well-off. Comfortable. With a nice house and no real worries about the future, able to support causes they believe in and people they love.