Afraid of Powerball

Did you buy a Powerball ticket? The staggering sums involved in this current round are certainly exciting: the jackpot is now at a dizzying $1.3 billion. The odds of winning the jackpot—1 in 292 million. Hoping for the jackpot is kind of like hoping your name will be drawn out of a fishbowl containing the names of every American.

On the other hand, why not play? Buying a ticket is cheap, kind of fun, and hopefully at least some of the money goes to support a good cause.

Imagine winning the lottery and becoming obscenely wealthy overnight. I imagine that winning the jackpot would instantly transform you into that generic stock photo of a man in a suit clutching fistfuls of Benjamins with a victorious smile on his face. However, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that real-life lottery winners tend to lead truly awful existences following the “luckiest day of their lives.”

The worst story I read was about a man who won the lottery whose brother proceeded to hire a hitman to murder him in the hopes of inheriting some of the winnings. In any case, conflict igniting between the lottery winner and family, friends, and even one’s own sense of self seems to be a common theme in these sorts of stories.

If you actually won the lottery, you would probably suddenly be besieged by long-forgotten friends and family members you didn’t even know existed. In every interaction that you had, you would see a financial motive lurking in the background. You would probably no longer be capable of having interactions that you could feel to be genuine, and you would gain a great understanding of what Aristotle meant by his cryptic lament: “O my friends, there is no friend.”

I think suddenly coming across hundreds of millions of dollars would be sort of like turning on god mode for life. My experience with cheat codes for god mode on video games has been that they are only fun for an hour at most, after which the game becomes incredibly boring. Right now, money imposes a great number of constraints on my life. I need to live in a certain location, limit purchases based on price, make career plans, and so on. While all of these constraints are generally pointless and stupid, they probably play an important role in preserving my sanity. I am not sure I would have the strength to live peacefully without these constraints. So I would be able to buy whatever I wanted, do whatever, go anywhere in the world? Reminds me of when I typed in a cheat code in Need for Speed to defeat all of my computer opponents by making them crash. This was admittedly sort of fun, but the canned praise after winning somehow sounded more hollow than usual (if such a thing is even possible).

I recall an aphorism that I saw hanging on the wall of a Buddhist temple: “Being different from everyone is worrisome; being the same as everyone is dissatisfying.” I can imagine the worry of having less money than most people, and I can imagine the boredom of being comfortably in the middle. But I’m curious about the dissatisfaction of being fabulously rich. I read about one lottery winner saying that he wished he had ripped his ticket up after finding out that he was a winner. On the other hand, some people don’t seem to mind being rich at all. I get the sense that people who toiled for years to gain their wealth tend to be better adjusted to the Uncle Pennybags lifestyle. Things you get for free usually end up being horrifically expensive; I have heard this said by multiple wise people, and it has been my real experience as well. And it seems that lottery winners often end up paying for their free millions with the most precious things imaginable: family, friends, and the unappreciated privilege of being “just like everyone else.”

Not that any of this matters, but it’s interesting to think about. Did I buy a ticket, you ask? Not a chance. I think it’s a waste of money, but I do admit that a small, irrational part of me is afraid to win.