The Psychology Behind Playing The Powerball Lottery

As the Powerball jackpot climbs to the high mark of 700 million, the passions and emotions are running high as well. Social media is abuzz with folks planning out their lives after the big win; committing to the charity donations they’ll make; promising friends and family that they will be moving on up to Easy Street; mentally shopping for the luxuries they’ll be able to afford – if the numbers play out just right this evening, of course.

However exciting the prospect of sudden wealth is, we’ve also heard the stories of many winners going flat broke after the big windfall of fortune; and we have probably all replied with a tongue-in-cheek, “I’ll take those odds; try me. That surely won’t be my story!”  So why does that phenomenon continue to happen?

The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards says that close to 33% of lottery winners declare bankruptcy after their win. But financial fitness is not the only aspect of their lives impacted by the unexpected monetary gains – other studies show that those who win, report increased anxiety, emotional problems, severed ties with those close to them, inability to become or stay employed, substance abuse and other negative impacts to their well-being.  Tara Bernard, of The NY Times, also adds that those who are more likely to buy lottery tickets are just as likely to be completely lost when faced with the reality of the big win and taking the next steps after collecting the big check.

Why? Research shows that buying the lottery ticket is essentially buying into the dreams, floating in the back of our minds, of sudden miraculous wealth – which a lot of us equate with an instant solution to all the issues and problems we encounter in our lives.  At the same time, those of us who hope for this possible phantom windfall are likely feeling anxious and undeserving of the true “wealth” in our lives – the kind of wealth we work for and learn to enjoy as part of our living experience.  We may suffer from self-esteem issues or problems forming fulfilling relationships or discovering our purpose in life and may feel that we are not well equipped to handle or manage any generous gift, whether it comes in the form of money or the more intangible form – for example,  a great marriage or a job of our dreams.  This lack of belief in our ability could result in sabotaging the outcome of these positive events and preventing further growth and success.

When unexpected wealth is bestowed upon us in this fashion, and we are not prepared for it, we tend to experience what is known as “The Sudden Wealth Syndrome”. Some manifestations of this may be the following:

  • Guilt and feeling undeserving of your luck; feeling like you have not done anything to truly earn your success.
  • Because you can’t truly acknowledge being deserving of it, you have a hard time determining what to do with it. You may become more stressed and anxious with the indecision.
  • That leads to not having a budget or a spend/invest plan; you begin spending frivolously or on things with no long term value.
  • You may feel pressure from those around you. You may consequently lose trust and communication with those close to you, leading to more stress and feeling alone.
  • You fear to lose this wealth in the same way you acquired it – unexpectedly – or fear it being taken away from you (because you don’t feel as if you deserved it in the first place, remember?).

So what is a good way to avoid becoming a sad cautionary tale of the “poor little rich girl-or-boy”? Also, since the odds of a win are infinitesimal, how do we continue working on building our true wealth in the sense of creating our “wealthy selves” – regardless of whether the odds smile at us at the time of the drawing?

Studies and research support that those lottery winners who had a strong sense of who they were (a “sense of self”) even prior to their win, reported being impacted less dramatically. Their recurring description of their lives past the lottery win was, “I stayed the same” with regard to their spending habits as well as their values, beliefs, and attitudes.  Even though additional spending may have taken place, it was spending and consumption that was in alignment with who they believed themselves to always have been.  Even those who made the decision to quit their former jobs did so in favor of living on a moderated budget and finding a new vocation that was affiliated to a cause they were passionate about.

These same winners reported “living well” (notice that they did use the words “carefree” or “lavishly” or any synonyms of that). This leads us to believe that a financially fulfilling life rests on the absence of worry about the finances – which is something we can strive for even without winning or acquiring the unexpected lump sum of funds.  When asked, the winners listed “security” as their first investment after the winnings – which is once again not far out of reach for most of us, whether that means a more aggressive retirement plan participation or securing the help of the financial advisor to help with better investments.

We all have a list of things we want to do “if” we win the lottery. But in asking around for what’s on everyone’s “Powerball List”, I saw things that are entirely possible even if the big win doesn’t hit tonight.  People shared their dreams of:

  • Travel
  • Finding a job they love instead of one they tolerate
  • Taking care of their kids’ futures
  • Contributing to charity
  • Paying off debt
  • Owning a home
  • Being secure in their future
  • Retirement
  • Finishing school
  • Helping their loved ones.

Nothing on those lists was impossible and nothing on those lists looked like wasteful, selfish or harmful spending. Even if you added a couple of splurges like a new car or a dream house or a cruise of a lifetime – the majority of us seemed to be dreaming of things we are already actively manifesting into our lives.

So although I too have lined up my lucky numbers for tonight’s drawing, I felt encouraged and heartened by the fact that the wealth we desire and plan for is there and attainable, if we continue to make a list of our goals and pursuing them mindfully and consistently.

Because that is when we truly win life’s big jackpot.

Inspiration resources:

Bernard, Tara Siegel. “Win the Lottery? Dream On.” New York Times, 10 Aug. 2013, p. B1(L). Global Issues in Context, Accessed 23 Aug. 2017.

Hedenus, Anna, Sociology,45(1) 22–37,  DOI:


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