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Be grateful you didn’t win the Mega Millions drawing

With the Mega Millions jackpot climbing to $1.6 billion in Tuesday's drawing, Neil Steinberg is probably even more glad he won't win. Probably. | Sun-Times staff

Friday, 4:30 p.m., coat on, quick glance at the desk before I flick off the lights and head for the train.

A folded piece of paper: “I (HEART) MY AWESOME COLLEAGUES,” A red heart. My own heart sank, I open the paper. A note of thanks from a coworker. And a lottery ticket to the Mega Millions $1 billion drawing that night.

My first instinct was to give it back. The lottery is stupid.

But I hesitated. What if the ticket I handed back won? Just my luck. Besides, what would I say to her: “Don’t drag me down into your fantasy world?”


What if I won? The first of an army of concerns waved its hand: my responsibility toward this co-worker. Well, I’d of course do the decent thing. I’ll give her, um, a million dollars. That seems fair.

No, actually, it’s not fair. Not if you do the math. A million dollars is 1/10 of 1 percent of $1 billion. Giving her $1 million in gratitude for my $1 billion windfall would be the same as rewarding somebody who returns a dropped $20 bill with a tip of two pennies. The ratio is the same.


See, you enter the lottery world and, “I’ll give my coworker a million dollars” becomes ill-considered cheapness.

I tried not to think about it. That night, at dinner, recounting the day, I mentioned the burden of this lottery ticket dropping into my lap.

“Oh good!” my wife bubbled. “I meant to buy a ticket!”

My mouth opened closed a few times, goldfish-like.

Ah heck, why not? We fell to fantasizing about the money, or trying to. The boys would be ruined, I observed. Why study hard, forge a career, with hundreds of millions of dollars waiting? If we gave them a share, they’d squander it. But if we held it back, they’d hate us. My colleague would hate me if I didn’t give her enough, and my relatives would hate me if I did.

See? You’re supposedly paying for the chance to dream, but it’s more like paying for new worries.

Coverage of the lottery is the media at its worst. I didn’t win Friday’s drawing. Nobody did, though good luck finding stories that pause from panting “Rollover!” to note that it means had you bought every single ticket sold you’d have still lost. We ignore that not only does the vast majority lose, but that winning also is vastly overrated.

Winning the lottery does not make you happy. There is actual science behind this. The classic study, brilliant in its conception, is the 1978 “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” by Philip Brickman and Dan Coates, of Northwestern University, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman of the University of Massachusetts. It questioned 22 winners of the Illinois State Lottery with 29 people paralyzed in accidents, to see how these changes affected their happiness.

The lottery winners were no happier than the control group, who neither won money nor had been paralyzed, and less happy than the paraplegics and quadriplegics. Why? The study suggests that while winning a million dollars opens the recipient up to new pleasures, it makes the old ones “less enjoyable.” “Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off,” the authors note.

So should people play the lottery? Is it ethical to to participate in this social ill?

I put that question to one of the authors of the 1978 study because she later studied morality.

“I do believe that the lottery functions somewhat as a regressive tax given the people most apt to buy tickets, but I wouldn’t want to make the claim that’s buying a ticket is immoral,” Prof. Janoff-Bulman wrote. “People buy tickets voluntarily, and I suppose I would argue that doing so isn’t unethical unless it means not being able to buy food, clothes, etc. for one’s family (i.e., somehow harms those close to the buyer). Given the incredibly low odds and false hopes, we might say that buying a ticket is unwise, even if not unethical.”

There you have it. Ever-larger jackpots create ever-bigger public hoopla, and as the air is filled with nonsense about dreams and fortunes, it can’t be said enough: Be proud you don’t play or, if you must, be glad you didn’t win. It would certainly have upended your life, while probably leaving you less happy than if you never won at all.