Will Winning the Mega Millions Kill You?

We’ve all heard the horror stories of lotto winners quickly going off the rails. So should you throw away your ticket? A look at the medical literature.

Attention all Powerball players waiting to win your first billion in Tuesday night’s epic Mega Millions drawing: Stop before it's too late! Winning may kill you! Or it might make you unhappy. Or it might make you overspend on cars and helicopters and lead you to early, penniless death.

That’s the well-turned schadenfreude narrative regarding the dismal life of lottery winners—that they blow their dough, they get divorced, they drink too much and snort too much cocaine. Their family starts to feud. They become legendary not for their generosity and jovial enjoyment of life on Easy Street, but as reps from the Department of Fractured American Dreams, a territory without real borders.

Indeed, much of the lay press, it would seem that any lottery winner ought to just give up immediately, walk slowly from his house, hands over his head, and be placed into custody. The disasters appear endless, including the need to deal with intrusive demanding family members, scam-a-minute ex-best-friends, seductive investments, and all the rest.

What’s a winner to do? Well, it might help to read the medical literature. The first solid study of lottery winners is a few decades old (PDF) but its conclusions are quite clear. Dr. Roy Kaplan, in the 1980s, published an article in the Journal of Gambling Behavior—and yes, absolutely, playing lottery is a form, however mild, of gambling—in which he asked more than 2,000 lottery winners from 12 states to complete a questionnaire. He received information from 576 winners, each of whom had won between $50,000 and a million bucks. And he found that, contrary to the popular belief already well-rooted three decades ago, lottery winners mostly were a calm, satisfied, and well-balanced crowd. “Individuals with psychologically and financially rewarding jobs continued working regardless of the amount they won,” Kaplan wrote. Rather than buying family dioramas made of gold, most expenditures actually were for “houses, automobiles, and trips.” His conclusion was that “overall, winners were well-adjusted, secure, and generally happy from the experience.”

Oh well. Yes, there is much to criticize about the study, including and especially the fact that so many lottery winners did not answer his questionnaire. Like high school alumni magazines, there is always an over-representation of the self-content, the worldly, the smug when a voluntary questionnaire goes out. It may well be—indeed it is likely—that the more unfortunate lotto winners didn’t respond to Dr Kaplan’s query. They might have been too broke or too drunk or too miserable. They might have moved away, address unknown. They might simply be too embarrassed to spill the beans on what a mess they had made.

Subsequent, less potentially biased studies from the 2000s seem to confirm Kaplan’s observations. Admittedly, most of the reports have come from Europe, where sanity about money may be a wee bit more likely than in America, but a windfall is a windfall is a windfall. These studies found that winners paid off debts and had either stable or improved quality of life. Why, the majority of German lottery winners did not even quit their jobs. Even the Brits seem to do well with “moderate” winnings—they exhibited better mental health than non-winners or small-win winners and the uplift lasted for more than two years.

So why do the cautionary tales persist every time one lottery or another reaches 8 or 9 digits in value? Especially here in the U.S., where 60 years ago, our Vatican—Las Vegas—arose from the Nevada desert and continues to attract millions of pilgrims annually each in pursuit of a hot blast of luck? Could it be that we feel a vestigial tug at our puritanical soul, a nostalgia for that not-quite-extinguished Sunday School ordering of the world where hard work and a clean nose are what the world rewards, not blind luck or good looks? Perhaps our collective national consciousness is ambivalent about this entire something-for-nothing gig. Perhaps we do not believe in the restorative power of luck so we agree to believe in a far different fantasy—that winning is somehow bad luck, that it will ruin our life to have a zillion bucks right now. Perhaps our greed is not greed at all, but simply a larger hunger for community.

I doubt it. More likely is that the media is preparing the millions of losers to be a little less sore when their number isn’t called. Or more likely yet, we are fed the stories because they make good copy—no one wants to read about happiness and satisfaction. Either way, winning a quick billion is not demonstrably risky to your health, so if you get the itch, go ahead and stand in the long line and try your luck.

Because hey, you never know.