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The enduring allure of winning the lottery

ByAnna Whealing

Jan 26, 2016

Everyone has thought about it: it is one of those million-dollar questions. What would you do if you won the lottery? According to The Independent, 32 million of us regularly play the National Lottery; so at least 32 million wrestle with this question once a week. But instead of creating thrilling visions of what we would do with our fabulous wealth, maybe we should be questioning whether winning the lottery would be more of a curse than a blessing?


It is a well known maxim that money cannot buy you happiness and tabloids love a story of rags to riches and back to rags. The life changing effect of sudden wealth has been the topic for much drama and there have been countless stories of relationship breakdowns, isolation, and lottery winner, frittering away the cash. Take, for instance The Syndicate, a BBC series that has portrayed the fictional, highly dramatic lives of post lottery winners. Whether The Syndicate can be taken as an accurate reflection of the effects of sudden wealth is hard to say, but it is true that we have a fascination with money. Especially money handed to you on a lottery ticket.


The lottery and lottery winners often grab a lot of media attention. This has arguably increased since October 2015, due to the controversial addition of an extra 10 balls to its twice weekly draw, upping the number from 49 to 59, and leading to a run of 14 consecutive rollovers. The Independent details how the odds of winning the National Lottery are now 1 in 45 million instead of the previous 1 in 14 million. This ever growing, teetering jackpot became in itself a huge money maker. The more attention the media drew towards the £66 million jackpot the more people got swept up in the frenzy and bought tickets. And consequently the more money was generated. It seems media attention and profit go hand in hand; this would appear at odds with the National Lottery itself, as it is technically a charitable body. It advertises that: “from total ticket sales of £7,277.8 million in the year ending 31 March 2015, £1,796.8 million was raised for National Lottery projects.” Projects that are selected by the Government range from the areas of arts, sports and heritage to health, education and environment.


We do not appear to play the lottery for philanthropic reasons: so why do we play it? Optimism, thrill, habit, conformism? It is most likely a combination of these factors. But whatever the reason, we obviously consider that winning the lottery will improve our lives and make us unthinkably happy, despite the constantly reaffirmed media message that money cannot buy you happiness. The countless stories of lottery winners’ difficulty in adjusting to enormous wealth paint a more disturbing picture. For them, winning the lottery became a curse. Mark Gardiner, for instance, who won over £11m in 1995, has been divorced four times and is estranged from his family. Michael Carroll, after his £9.7m win in 2002 at the age of 19, has been in court 30 times for various offences. And there are multiple examples of winners suffering from isolation, drink and drugs problems, disillusion and depression and eventually losing all their new found wealth.


Conversely, it is also the case that money generally improves your standard of living and by extension improves your happiness. BBC News Magazine reported a study conducted by Professor Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, who concluded that: “Although many people don’t want to hear the evidence, it is overwhelmingly more evident that winning the lottery makes you happier and improves your mental health.” The long term study watched 50,000 regular lottery players overtime; luckily some of these people actually won. Oswald concluded that after the initial “euphoria” of the win “the evidence suggests people don’t enjoy the money for the first year or two”. In these initial years many took up drinking, smoking and eating heavily, having a direct impact on physical health; but after this their standard of living improved along with their happiness. Of course, this study could not look at the effects of a huge jackpot win; but it does suggest that the majority of lottery winners are more happy.


Moreover, the level of happiness that can arise out of a lottery win evidently depends on the individual. There are many cases where success and sudden wealth ensures relief and pure happiness. Consider Ngagne, the migrant form Senegal, who last December won a share of €640m (£470m), in the “El Gordo” lottery. He and his wife had been rescued from a boat in 2007 and at the time of the win Ngagne had just lost his job as a vegetable picker, and was supporting his family on barely €5 a day. For him winning the lottery was a form of salvation. Comparatively, the aforementioned Michael Carroll had a minor criminal record prior to winning £9.7m, which could have impacted on his financial choices.


Whether the lottery turns out to be a curse or a blessing is almost another lottery in itself. There is an element of responsibility for every party involved not to turn riches into regret. The National Lottery has Camelot’s winners’ advisers as a support group for lottery winners, giving practical advice on how to save or invest the money. They do their bit to make winners happy winners, which in turn generates good publicity. The media are largely responsible for the image of the lottery and lottery winners in society; frequently they can make a winner’s life difficult, especially if a winner ‘decides to go public’. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the winner to not let the money become detrimental to their life.


What would you do if your friend, sibling or awkward flatmate suddenly won the lottery? You hope you would not change your attitude or your expectations of them. But money is a dangerous force. For Jane Park, who won £1m at the age of 17, her life did not change drastically, still living with her mum and holidaying in Magaluf: the biggest difference she noticed was the way people treated her and the amount of hate comments she received from friends and total strangers. Happiness in lottery success, it seems, is what you make of it; hence why the question of ‘what would you do if you won the lottery?’ is so often speculated. If stories of disaster and dissatisfaction tell us anything, they appear to show that winning the lottery is not always as easy as the media would lead us to believe, or the be-all and end-all route for ensuring certain never-ending happiness.

Image: Magnus D

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