At Least According To Some Authors
“If only I could win the lottery!” — Statement said by many during the course of a long day at work
We’ve all daydreamed about it. I know you have. During a long week at work you’ve thought about having millions. You caressed that thought in your mind — I wonder what life would be like if I had “F.U. type of money”. The type of money where you would never have to work again. Just sit in your mansion and enjoy whatever it is that people in mansions enjoy.
But, is this really as good as the dream makes it out to be? Could a big lottery win make all your problems go away? Or as the stoic philosopher Biggie Smalls says does mo’ money make mo’ problems?
Fortunately for us armchair scientists, we have a population to study who lives this fantasy out every day — lottery winners. At least current data provided from this group tells us that the fantasy doesn’t meet reality. There are a number of big lottery winners who stepped through the gates of hell when they collected their fortunes.
The Lottery Curse
“Studies found that instead of getting people out of financial trouble, winning the lottery got people into more trouble, since bankruptcy rates soared for lottery winners three to five years after winning.” — Jay L. Zagorsky, economist and research scientist, Ohio State University
Economist Jay Zagorsky in his article for U.S. News gives us some horrific stats to think about. Number one being that a number of lottery winners declare bankruptcy within five years of winning the lottery. He also mentions an economics paper written by economists Guido Imbens and Bruce Sacerdote and statistician Donald Rubin that found lottery winners only save 16 cents for every dollar won.
Some might be wondering how one can blow through millions in a short time period. Zagorsky recounts the story of Huntington Hartford who lived from 1911 to 2008. Hartford inherited the company that would eventually become the A & P supermarket chain at the age of twelve. The fortunate he inherited equated to about 1.3 billion dollars in today’s money.
Hartford would declare bankruptcy in 1992 and spend the rest of his life living with one of his daughters. It took longer than a few years obviously, but he had over a billion dollars and still blew through it with nothing to show for it.
In an article for CNBC, Abigail Hess recounts the story of Jack Whittaker. Whittaker won $315 million dollars in the lottery. Within 8 months of the win, he was robbed of over $500,000. He also lost a daughter and granddaughter to drug overdoses.
“I wish that we had torn the ticket up. I just don’t like Jack Whittaker. I don’t like the hard heart I’ve got. I don’t like what I’ve become.” — Jack Whittaker
Hess also refers to studies that show that a lottery win also don’t make a person healthier or happier.
Just doing a quick search on Google provides many links to examples of how lottery wins have destroyed people. But the question remains, why does this happen?
Objective Conditions Versus Subjective Expectations
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explores the human species and its evolution. Strangely enough, he doesn’t just explore anthropological evidence about humanity. He also delves into the psychology of the human species. In particular, he examines how subjective expectations and objective conditions can affect happiness.
He even makes the crazy claim that a car accident and a lottery win can bring about the same subjective level of happiness. On its face that sounds like a crazy claim. However, after looking at the trouble a lottery win can bring about in the beginning of this article, maybe the statement isn’t so crazy.
Harari explains that a lottery win creates elation right after the jackpot is awarded. However as the winner gets used to having lots of money, they become harder and harder to appease. The mansion and sports car don’t bring as much happiness as they once did. Other things must be pursued to achieve bliss because the bar has now been raised to a much higher level.
Someone in a terrible car accident who has an injury has their subjective expectations dramatically lowered. Just being able to walk by themselves may bring them happiness. Their bar has been lowered drastically and it doesn’t take much to reach it in order to bring a level of satisfaction.
In his book A Guide to the Good Life, William Braxton Irvine refers to this phenomenon as hedonic adaptation. This term coined by Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein refers to the human ability to adapt to various events eventually making them normal. Frederick and Loewenstein refer to instances where people who have become paralyzed have become accustomed to their new situation and consciously adapted.
Irvine in his book explains hedonic adaptation can work in a negative way as well. He gives the example of a relationship. There is initial bliss and rapture with the new partner. But as time goes on, one starts to notice the flaws in the partner. Eventually, this bliss wears off as the bar has been raised and the new partner cannot live up to the artificially high standards.
Similarly, former Navy SEAL and now author Jocko Willink repeats many of the same things speaking about war. In his TED Talk, Jocko speaks about the horror and benefits of war.
“War is a nightmare. War is awful. It is indifferent and devastating and evil. War is hell. But war is also an incredible teacher, a brutal teacher. And it teaches you lessons that you will not forget. In war you are forced to see humanity at its absolute worst, and you are also blessed to see humanity in its most glorious moments. War teaches you about sorrow and loss and pain, and it teaches you about the preciousness and the fragility of human life. And in that fragility, war teaches you about death. But war also teaches you about brotherhood and honor and humility and leadership…”
Willink describes war as terrible but simultaneously explains benefits he’s gained from being involved in a war. Over the years that I’ve listened to him speak, he’s explained various times that war made him better in the end. It gave him the perspective to realize the joys that can be found in everyday life.
The hedonic adaptation of being in such a terrible situation adjusted his mental bar of happiness permanently. Small things that others take for granted are now truly understood. Just being able to walk down the street without worrying about stepping on a bomb is now truly appreciated. Being in a comfortable house isn’t something taken for granted. It appears that Willink can appreciate the benefits in our everyday lives to a level an ordinary person can’t contemplate.
What Does This All Mean?
“My motto: You can only eat so many steaks. “— Steve Cordasco, financial advisor
So are you screwed if you win the lottery, get a high paying job, or come into a big inheritance? Definitely not, if you’re careful and keep your head about you.
A local financial adviser I’ve listened to on radio did a yearly show about what to do if you win the lottery or come into a big pile of money. Steve Cordasco’s basic advice is to get a team. The team should at least be made up of a financial advisor and a tax attorney.
Cordasco also recommends investing the bulk of the money in the safety of government bonds with low yields. If you have a large jackpot, you’ll be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Your principal will also be safe.
Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, recommends to stay completely anonymous if possible. Don’t tell anyone you won. This will keep scammers and leeches at bay. He also recommends not changing anything for six months. This will give your team time to get your affairs in order. It will also give you time to wrap your head around having that much money and hopefully not do anything too crazy.
There are people to help you handle the money, but what about dealing with yourself? How do you avoid from going crazy or becoming a victim to hedonic adaptation?
Going to a warzone or getting into a car accident to lower your bar permanently aren’t an option either.
William Braxton Irvine is a philosophy professor and that’s what his book concentrates on. Specifically, he centers his cure for hedonic adaptation around the stoic principleof negative visualization. In this method, one imagines the loss of things they love or hold dear.
You may complain about your wife or boyfriend who’s been with you for years. Now, imagine they were gone or lost. Let that vision sink in. Imagine the strange stillness of your house. Think of all the times you’d begin to say something to them, only to realize they weren’t there. What would that strange empty hole feel like? I’m guessing terrible. Now your perspective has changed.
Negative visualization enables you to periodically imagine loss and pain so you can truly appreciate what you have. This mental exercise in a way enables you to experience that lowered bar a car accident victim or a soldier in a war zone may experience.
However, this isn’t only handy for keeping your head during a lottery win. This little exercise can keep you appreciative of the many blessings around you that you never notice. Perhaps by doing this you may even realize how amazing your present life already is. You may have already won the lottery and just not realized it yet.
We may all have the same daydream of winning the lottery. Money falls from the sky and angels dump gold coins on your head. But, it doesn’t seem to work that way in real life. Life is complicated and money has its own weird way of creating new problems. As strange as it sounds, perhaps we can learn something from that person in the car crash. Maybe by lowering our bar a bit as they do will make our current lives a happier place.
Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please share. By the way, despite all this, I’ll still take the lottery win any day 😁.