You can’t win if you don’t play.
Siren Song of Lottery Players
At this very moment there is someone plunking down hard earned cash for a lottery ticket. Most folks drop a few bucks and quietly go about their business. Others, who dream big (and apparently slept through math class), spend considerably more. There was a woman who excitedly told her date that in honor of her recently deceased dad she and her mother were investing all the proceeds of his life insurance on lottery tickets. Daughter and mom were convinced that buying a large amount of tickets guaranteed a big win while unwittingly making a case for trust funds. As it turned out, the dreamers didn’t win anything, dad didn’t get a headstone and the date decided to move on. But people do win. All the time. And sometimes more than once. Calvin and Zatera Spencer, of Portsmouth, VA have the distinction of winning three major prizes in less than a month. On March 12 they won $1 million on Powerball, on March 26, they won $5,000 by matching four numbers in the Pick 4 and on March 27, they won another million in the $100 Million Cash Extravaganza. The Spenser’s are why Americans spent $78 billion on lottery tickets last year and will likely spend even more this year. If they can win, why not me?
With the possible exception of the Spenser’s, no one really expects to win the lottery. The odds of winning the Mega Millions lottery, for example, are estimated at 1 in 176 million. By contrast you have 1 in 112 million odds of being crushed by a vending machine, a 1 in 3.7 million chance of being eaten by a shark, a 1 in 700,000 chance of being struck by lightning and a 1 in 3,000 chance of being hit by an asteroid (heads up!). In fairness, when the media reports the odds of winning the lottery, they’re always talking about winning the big prize. But lotteries pay out a lot of small prizes as well. A twenty-five year look at the California Lottery reveals that they’ve paid out roughly $27 billion in winnings to 2.8 billion winning tickets. About 250 lucky souls won a million dollars or more but the average winnings were a little south of $10. It seems that if your fantasy about winning the lottery is to buy a really nice meal at McDonalds, the lottery might actually help you realize the dream.
It’s the chance to realize a dream that attracts folks to the lottery and keeps them coming back for more. Each and every ticket buys a dollar’s worth of hope. That little piece of paper represents a fantasy potentially fulfilled making it a cheap, though transitory thrill. And for the financially prudent among us, you don’t even have to play to get a little fantasy buzz. When the Mega Million jackpot is inching over $600 million, even the least fun-loving among us has to wonder what it would be like to win. Ticket or no, it’s fun to dream. Yet the dreaming can be instructive as well as fun. Take a moment and consider what you’d do if you won a major prize—something worth a few hundred million after Uncle Sam has sliced off his 50%. How would you spend it? Savor that thought for a while and then ask “why?” Answering that question honestly can tell you lot about yourself. Embedded in every fantasy, hope or wish is a value. It reflects something we believe in but, oddly, aren’t always aware of. There’s at least a little entertainment in planning how we’d spend our millions, but questioning our values just feels like work. So use the lottery to your advantage. Have some fun “spending” that cash and figuring out the reason you’d do it. It’s the one lottery you can play and never lose. —Ebert