Last week three people won and split the largest Powerball lottery jackpot in history, with winnings topping $1.58 billion. That’s a lot of cash to go home with in exchange for the nominal price of a Powerball ticket. But is winning a heap of dough for relatively nothing all that great? Unfortunately in most cases, whether it’s receiving a loan from a friend, a handout from the government or a large check from the lottery, receiving something for (almost) nothing has an adverse effect on the human psyche, the nation’s economy and humanity itself.
First, the odds of a person winning the Powerball jackpot — as many millions of Americans discovered first hand last week — is a slim 292,201,228 to one. The odds of winning a Powerball Match 5 prize are one in 11,688,054. You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning (one in 700,000). So, given those odds, alone, one could say it’s a waste of money.
Past winners have shown us the kind of bad “karma” that comes with winning the lottery. These folks won millions and blew it, some in a matter of months. In 1988, William “Bud” Post won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery. Within a year, Post was $1 million in debt and his own brother tried to have him killed. In 2004, Sharon Tirabassi won about $10 million via the Ontario Lottery. She’d been a single mom on welfare who blew her winnings and is now renting a house, working part-time. Abraham Shakespeare won a $30 million lottery in Florida. A woman named DeeDee Moore befriended him, swindled his earnings, and then killed him. She is currently serving a life sentence for murder.
As bad as those things sound, the biggest reason the lottery is a waste of money is not because it’s a poor use of funds, or because you might mismanage your sudden wealth, or even get killed for it, but because working for your dividends is exponentially more rewarding than getting them for free.
Arthur Brooks, an economist and president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes that up to 50 percent of a person’s happiness is genetically predetermined, about 40 percent is due to recent events, and the remaining comes down to how we view family, community, faith and work.
Really — work?
“The first three are fairly uncontroversial,” Brooks writes. “Empirical evidence that faith, family and friendships increase happiness and meaning is hardly shocking… Work, though, seems less intuitive. Popular culture insists our jobs are drudgery, and one survey recently made headlines by reporting that fewer than a third of American workers felt engaged; that is praised, encouraged, cared for and several other gauges seemingly aimed at measuring how transcendently fulfilled one is at work.”
Brooks goes on to describe how this began. “Vocation is central to the American ideal, the root of the aphorism that we ‘live to work’ while others ‘work to live.’ Throughout our history, America’s flexible labor markets and dynamic society have given its citizens a unique say over our work — and made our work uniquely relevant to our happiness,” he explains.
The Value of Work
There are at least three groups of Americans who might take issue with Brooks’ view. I should hope to persuade all of them that there is joy in work and ultimately dissatisfaction over lottery tickets.
First, the middle-aged, but not yet-retired person who did fine until the 2008 crash and is still struggling to recover in terms of finding work that pays a comparable wage to what he lost in the recession. I’ve never been in this situation, but I watched my parents live through this period. My dad, a small business owner, felt the economic blow immensely. He’s a Midwestern man with a simple but solid work ethic. Quitting would have been out of the question. Still, like many Americans during the recession, he struggled to pay the bills. He kept networking, handled what he had efficiently, and when all else seemed to be going poorly, kept working.
Second, the Millennial generation (and Generation Z that’s coming up now), which has been coddled by helicopter parents, loaded down with student loan debt to pay for degrees that have little value in the labor market, and complains about being unable to find “meaningful” employment. To them I say: Swallow your pride, work at McDonald’s. Start a business if you have money. Heck, walk the neighbor’s dogs. Any work is better than no work, and it’s never too early or late to start somewhere small.
Finally, the elderly, formerly incarcerated, or military veterans — a catchall group for whom “work” or “finding a job” is much more complicated than it is for the average, healthy person of employable age. There are dozens of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping these folks find work. The Heritage Foundation produced a study called “Seek Social Justice,” which shows how groups such as Men of Valor, a Tennessee-based ministry that helps men transition out of prison, view work as a critical component of success. (A short video clip about the ministry is below.)
I wasn’t aware of the term “earned success” until recently. But I think this explains why I will not say no to my kids when they want to set up a neighborhood lemonade stand, even if it requires effort and oversight over my young children. First, it keeps them busy. But more importantly, watching them “toil” over even such a small event, but then high-five and laugh while they count their dollars and change, is a satisfying and (one hopes) memorable moment in their lives. It’s a small step toward understanding the bigger connection between joy and work versus dissatisfaction and idleness.
Next time you’re tempted to purchase a lottery ticket, or if you’re still bummed you didn’t win the Big One, remember money doesn’t buy happiness, though it might ease some pain. Real happiness, joy, and contentment, is found when one applies his own gifts towards that area in which the world shows need, and does that thing with effort, zeal, and consistency. The sweetest success isn’t purchased at a gas station, but with your own sweat.
Nicole Russell is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter .