Hitting the Jackpot

September 17, 2007 at 5:51 am 6 comments

Have you seen any of the news coverage on the recent interview with the biggest lottery winner ever? Jack Whittaker was already a millionaire businessman when he won the $318 million jackpot, but the 59-year-old claims, now five years later, that the large and public increase in wealth destroyed his marriage, lost him his friends, intensified the troubles of his granddaughter, who then died of a drug overdose. Basically, he says winning the lottery ruined his life.

Now, there are a lot of issues to untangle in this story, the first of which is that obviously this man had troubles before winning the lottery; they were just amplified by the windfall. But, I bring his story up because it rings to true to other stories we hear about lottery winners — that the “dream-come-true” windfall doesn’t necessarily solve a person’s problems, and may actually bring more sorrows than joys in the long run.

I flash back to my days as a college resident advisor, when I was in charge of a women’s floor in an international dorm. Burned in my mind is the image of a young woman, from a working-class Cuban-American neighborhood in Florida, sitting on my single dorm bed crying so hard that her contact lenses poured out of her eyes with her tears. She was telling me about how her father had won the lottery, and this event had basically torn apart their community and their family.

Money was never a big topic in our house, growing up. We didn’t have extra, but we had enough to get by. We were necessarily frugal, but also fine, is the message I received. I’ve learned, through my experiences, that this is where I’m actually most comfortable. Having more doesn’t make me too much more happy (and in fact can sometimes bring more anxiety), and having less doesn’t actually make me less happy (of course, I’ve always had enough to get by).

There are now studies that actually back up this idea. Psychologists have found that money only improves happiness if it takes people out of abject poverty. Otherwise, once we have enough for food and shelter, extra money has does not make us empirically happier.

Ironically (as I started writing this post three days ago), today at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship (a liberal, interfaith congregation), a guest minister from Northern California, Rev. Erika Hewitt, spoke about happiness. Her goal (with a background in psychology herself) was to explode cultural myths about happiness, particularly those that say if we just think a certain way, we will be happy, and we have total control over this thinking.

Rev. Hewitt quoted current psychological research that says we are each born with a baseline of happiness, and whether we win a million bucks or lose our limbs, after a period of elation or melancholy from such extreme events, within about a year we tend to return to our baseline happiness, throughout our lives. (She quoted from the book Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, which I plan to check out.)

If this is true, could the lottery perhaps attract people who feel dissatisfied with their lives, and think a jackpot would solve their problems — then, after they win, they return to their baseline outlook and find they are still basically dissatisfied and unhappy? Or, would a generally happy person win the lottery and discover they were no happier a year later, either?

One of the themes of big winner Jack Whittaker’s story is that he blames the lottery win for his problems. A psychologist friend of mine was telling me the other day that this blaming on events, too, may actually be in part an inherent trait — this one of anxious people. For example, if an anxious person observes a drowning, she will become afraid of the water — blaming the tragedy for her fear. If a less anxious person observes the same event, she may not internalize it that way, and will still love swimming thereafter.

So, the question is still outlook or attitude, just how much is in our control and how much is hard-wired? Can we change our basic happiness, anxiety level, or outlook?

I’ve sat on this post for a few days and now have new info to process (and a toddler giving up naps), so I’m just going to put it out there while I have a moment, a bit jumbled I apologize, and see what comes of it. Since I don’t have a pithy closing for this one — no wise thought to conclude with — I will end with these ponderings:

What do you think winning the lottery would do for your happiness, immediately and in the long run? What role does money play in your own fantasies or life story? How much do you believe you are in control of your reactions to life’s events? And, who wants to read Stumbling On Happiness with me, to explore this infinitely complicated issue further?


Entry filed under: Success/Failure, Wealth.

February Flowers by Fan Wu Success = Sleep

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jennifer Applin  |  September 18, 2007 at 2:19 am

    Great post, Megan! Stumbling on Happiness sounds really interesting. It reminds of a card I read once that said “Happiness isn’t a destination, it’s the journey.” So, so true!

  • 2. Mrs. Jones  |  September 18, 2007 at 11:29 pm

    I’ve always had what my mother calls “money luck” in that whenever I was at the end of my rope and needed a certain amount of money in order to keep my single mother lifestyle just above the poverty line, something would always happen to make that amount appear. It didn’t usually come in the form of a check, but maybe an opportunity to earn it with overtime or an extra shift; that sort of thing. However, when it did just show up without any effort on my part, because of my situation in life, I would just fall to my knees and weep with gratitude. I was pretty stressed out back then, but if you were to open up the endless boxes of old photos of my daughters and me, you would see smiles and laughter. We are much more comfortable these days and I sometimes have to pinch myself for the awesome life that I have. I’m remarried now with two more little ones that I get to stay home with. I have a vehicle, and little miracles, it runs. My lights turn on when I hit the light switch because the electricity bill was paid… on time. I can use my debit card at the grocery store without crossing my fingers. When I open my pantry, there is food inside. Same with the refrigerator. I pray in thanksgiving now, not desperation. However, in comparison to the status quo of our city, we are still just barely making it. We live in what the realtors call “the least popular” region of our seaside village. That always makes me laugh. Regardless, you can still pull out any photos of my family and we are all smiles and laughter. You can’t buy that. Not even in the most popular regions.

  • 3. MaryTracy9  |  September 25, 2007 at 9:14 am

    The question is: can you pull up your happiness baseline? What if we are born with a LOW baseline for happiness? Are we just FORCKED UP forever?

    I really would like to ask these questions to that Rev. Hewitt.

  • 4. Lynn  |  September 25, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    In the long run do I think winning the Lottery would make me any happier? No. Initially, I know I would be ecstatic but after that shock passes, no, it would not make me any happier than I already choose to be. How can I be so sure? There have been small milestones, accomplishments that I have made in life that I KNEW once I reached that goal I would be so MUCH happier, and in reality, while I was initially happy to reach those goals, once accomplished it made me no more happier than I already was. The Lottery would only allow me a bit more relief in that I know I can provide for my family without any worry, but that’s relief, not relief is not “happiness”. I have not read the book but I do believe people are as happy as they are going to be, with or without money.

  • 5. Shawn  |  September 25, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    Well, I think by being able to pay off bills, and live less pay check to pay check, that the lottery – perhaps a smaller lump sum — would definitely make life less stressful, therefore, making us happier. But, I agree that money isn’t the answer to our problems over all and that investing that kind of money for future use would probably be a safer bet. I certainly wouldn’t deny the money if I won it — but you have to play to win, and I don’t play.

    It’s a great topic to explore, especially since happiness projects are all over the place right now. Clearly, money is not the answer!

  • 6. Megan  |  September 25, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    How timely! Mother Talk just hosted a blog tour of a book on “the dark side of lottery millions”: http://mother-talk.com/wp/?p=197 Might be worth checking out with the other book (Stumbling on Happiness, from which the Rev. got much of her info, I think). Thanks so much for the comments!


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To spark conversation about redefining success (as individuals, families and institutions) and to counter "never enough" messages currently circulating in our culture.

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Megan Pincus Kajitani: Writer, Editor, Former Academic Overachiever and Career Counselor, Mom, Wife, Feminist, Gen Xer, Californian who believes that change is possible View Megan Pincus Kajitani's profile on LinkedIn

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