Winning the lottery

Last week the Powerball jackpot hit $1.6 billion. The lucky number was picked by three different people so they had to split the pie three ways. I’m sure it was disappointing to the three winners that others had also picked the winning numbers. Still, more than $500 million before taxes is a lot of money.

Many of us fantasized what they would do with the money if we beat the 1 in 292 million odds and won the big one. I heard the old joke about farming until it was all gone. Many of my friends dreamed of paying off their debts, buying new cars, fixing up their home or buying a new one. Most of the people I know said they would be really generous and support their church or their favorite charity. Some had obviously spent some time thinking about the possibilities that a multi-million dollar windfall would allow.

I didn’t bother. I don’t buy lottery tickets. One in 292 million are pretty much an impossibility.  Your chances of being struck by lightening in your lifetime are one in 12,000 and I only know one person who won that lottery. In spite of the astronomical odds against an individual winning the Powerball jackpot, more than $2.6 billion was spent to buy tickets for this most recent jackpot. That’s a lot of money and billions of tickets as a single ticket costs only two dollars.

I did recently buy a raffle ticket for a trip to Norway from a friend of mine selling them for his Sons of Norway lodge. I’m not holding my breath to win that one either, and I’m sure my odds of winning are far greater than 292 million to one.

Often the poor are criticized for buying lottery tickets when they are struggling just to get by. Apparently the morality of gambling is different for those who have extra cash. The reality of poverty in this country is that if you are born in poverty, you are unlikely to escape. In spite of the odds against winning, spending a couple of bucks on a lottery ticket may seem like a better bet than struggling to make ends meet at a minimum wage job. It seems like a low risk bet with great potential despite the odds.

For all of us, it is easy to be generous when imagining what we would do with hundreds of millions of dollars. We imagine how happy we would be if all our financial worries were gone. We dream about all the good things we would do if only we had that much money.

That is a fantasy and a false hope. Most of us would take care of our own needs first and at best we would give away what was left over. The problem is that our needs often expand to match our means. Studies show that winners of large sums of money are not happier after their good luck than they were before. Often winners find themselves in bankruptcy within a short time of winning. Most are not particularly generous outside of their immediate families.

Spending time daydreaming about being a great philanthropist with one’s Powerball winnings is a waste of time. It may make us feel morally superior for a moment, but it changes nothing.

Many of us in this country have already won the lottery. We were born here to families who value education, who work hard and who taught us how to work hard. We learned many skills and maybe even inherited some wealth. We may have made the best of what we have been given, but we didn’t get to chose where we were born. We could just as easily have been born to parents who spend their days picking through a garbage dump for castoffs to resell. We could be part of the world’s population that lives on less than the cost of a lottery ticket each day. We are the lucky ones, even though we may struggle to pay the bills and to keep up with our neighbors.

Instead of fantasizing what we would do if we won a large fortune, we might be happier and more effective if we daydreamed about being generous with the good fortune we already have. That kind of daydreaming when put into action can make a difference both in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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2 thoughts on “Winning the lottery

  1. Marcy Svenningsen

    You are so right, Janet, when you remind us that we have already won the lottery by being born in the United States! I would go further and say how amazingly lucky I was to born to parents who were involved in agriculture (only 2% of Americans) so that I could grow up and share a farm and ranch with my family. How blessed are we?!

  2. Mel

    I greatly enjoy all three of your last posts. I too, feel abundantly blessed to be born in the United States. I was not born into a family which actively farms but I grew up with the work ethic and spend thrifty ways of my farming ancestry. I learned, this Christmas, that my family can survive . . . Actually thrive on half the sum we have budgeted for groceries. We have to cook and shop creatively to keep our purchases local and sustainable. This has totally begun to redefine wants, needs and “enough” for our family. Your story about Haiti is poignant and illustrated a perspective on charity which needs re-thinking. Thanks for sharing, it is not unlike others I have heard. As for hitting the lottery, I am so grateful for a faithful husband who is employed, my children who value education, and the friends they have found at their respective schools who are all sincerely good kids and come from diverse backgrounds which has taught my children a type of color-blindness best learned by experiencing other races and cultures (two of my children attend high schools with robust International populations). I continue to enjoy your blog even though times constraints prevent my visiting much. It’s very nice to meet Marcy as well : ).

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