Mental Health and the Lottery


Whether it’s winning the lottery or getting a big inheritance, sudden wealth can produce all kinds of unexpected challenges. Some of those challenges can be handled by hiring a crack team to manage your finances, pay off debts, set up savings for college or retirement, diversify your investments and keep up a robust emergency fund. But there is one important piece of the puzzle that can’t be outsourced to lawyers or shopped around to investment advisors: your mental health. Plenty of past lottery winners serve as cautionary tales about the psychological impact of sudden riches, and the ways in which a person’s life can be drastically changed for the worse in an instant.

The word “lottery” comes from the Middle Dutch loterie, which may be a calque on the earlier French loterie, meaning “action of drawing lots.” The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were in the Low Countries during the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and help poor people. In colonial America, lotteries were a major source of funding for private and public projects. Lotteries funded roads, canals, bridges, schools, churches and colleges, as well as a variety of military operations, including the expedition against Canada.

In the modern world, 44 states run lotteries to raise money for education, state government or other purposes. The six states that don’t, according to the BBC, are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah and Nevada, which all have laws against gambling in some form. Alabama and Utah’s bans are motivated by religious concerns; the states of Mississippi and Nevada, which allow casino gambling, don’t want to compete with a state lottery that could attract gamblers away from their casinos.

These days, the primary way that states raise money through lotteries is by selling tickets with numbers on them to people who want a chance at winning prizes ranging from cash to vacations. The number of winners is determined by chance through a random process, and the amount of money that is allocated to each prize depends on how many tickets are sold. Typically, the more expensive the ticket, the higher the payout.

Ticket sales are driven by super-sized jackpots that draw attention and free publicity on newscasts and websites. But the huge payouts come with a price, because most lottery players are not making enough money to afford to play more than once in a year. The player base is disproportionately lower-income, less educated and nonwhite. And playing tends to decline with age and with levels of formal education.

Once the initial wave of excitement has worn off, lottery revenues begin to stagnate. As a result, states have resorted to expanding into new games and increasing promotion to try to generate more interest. The resulting mix of high ticket prices and low participation has left a lot of people dissatisfied with the lottery. Some have even started to boycott it altogether. Others, however, remain committed to the idea that they are doing a civic duty by buying a lottery ticket.

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