Life

Why the Myth of the Miserable Lottery Winner Just Won’t Die

Actually, most people do just fine with their millions of fresh new dollars.

A person buys a Mega Millions lottery ticket at a store on July 29, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. - The jackpot for Friday's Mega Millions is now $1.1 billion, the second-largest jackpot in game history. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
A person buys a Mega Millions lottery ticket at a store on July 29, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images

On Friday night, Mega Millions held a drawing for a whopping $1.28 billion jackpot, the third largest in American history. Late in the evening, officials announced the winning numbers—13-36-45-57-67, with a Mega Ball of 14—and on Saturday morning, said that one jackpot-winning ticket had been sold, in Illinois.

One in eight American adults play the lottery at least once a week, and almost half buy at least one ticket a year. Unfortunately, even if you bought your annual ticket sometime in the last few days, that winner is probably not going to be you—unless you happen to be that lucky Illinoisan. Maybe that’s okay, you tell yourself. Don’t lottery winners end up broke and miserable? It would be great to be rich, but I don’t need $1.1 billion.

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Except most lottery winners do not wind up broke, or miserable, or bankrupt.

Stories about regretful lottery winners are trotted out whenever jackpots get big. But as much as jealous losing bettors might want to think that winners’ unfathomably good luck is balanced out by bad, most people who strike it rich this way settle into lives of quiet, comfortable anonymity.

And yet, the myth of the miserable lottery winner persists. The history of this myth reveals a longstanding national discomfort with gambling, and exposes deep-seated cultural beliefs about the connection between wealth, work, and merit.

In the United States, media coverage of lottery winners is nearly as old as lotteries themselves. The first American lotteries were held in the 17th century to raise funds for colonial infrastructure projects. Lotteries appealed to gamblers at the time for many of the same reasons they are popular today: they offered a chance to dream of instant affluence, and provided a rare opportunity for the poor to hit it big.

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But starting in the colonial period, a specific genre of human-interest story became widespread: lottery winners who wound up broke, beleaguered, or worse. From the 18th through the 20th century, newspapers in the United States recounted the misfortunes of lottery winners from across the globe: A baker and his pregnant wife murdered for his winnings by an employee (Paris, France, 1765). A squandered jackpot invested in a failed shipping venture (Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1883). A winner dying of a heart attack immediately upon hearing news of his windfall (Bilbao, Spain, 1934).

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These stories remained common as states began legalizing lotteries in the 1960s and 1970s. With so many lottery prizes being handed out—and so many winners’ stories to choose from—journalists began to frame miserable lottery winners not as unique curiosities, but as a trend. Jackpots at the time were small, and some winners reported being hounded for money from strangers and family members. Partly due to the federal government’s semi-adversarial approach to state-run gambling, many also faced problems with the IRS. University of Buffalo sociologist H. Roy Kaplan interviewed around 100 early lottery winners in the mid-1970s and found most of them happy, despite these challenges. Nonetheless, a narrative was born. “Instant millionaires: Dream becomes nightmare for some,” one 1976 headline noted. “Million-dollar winners find reasons to cry in their champagne,” read another.

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The myth has been with us ever since. With the rise of rollover jackpot games in the 1980s, prizes got a lot bigger, and the tragedies suffered by some winners became even more dramatic: Jack Whittaker, a West Virginia man, won $314.9 million in 2002. He was robbed multiple times and lost a granddaughter to a drug overdose, an event he blamed on the windfall. Abraham Shakespeare was killed by an acquaintance three years after winning $30 million in 2006. William Post won $16.2 million in 1988 and spent lavishly. He quickly faced legal troubles, and his brother tried to hire someone to kill him and his sixth wife. Post died broke in 2006. A headline from the satirical website The Onion, the day after a record-breaking 2012 jackpot, captured the prevailing wisdom about lucky lottery players: “Powerball Winners Already Divorced, Bankrupt.”

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But unlucky winners like Post, Whittaker, and Shakespeare are the exception, not the rule. Their stories are repeated so often not because they are representative but because they are some of only a few examples of regretful winners. The vast majority of jackpot recipients collect their novelty checks at press conferences and are never heard from again.

The non-miserableness of lottery winners is borne out by studies from across the globe. Research into winners in Germany, Singapore, and Britain found that winning the lottery does, in fact, make people happier, and a 2004 study found that 85.5 percent of winners in Ohio kept working, a sign of how many carried on with their normal, pre-jackpot lives. A commonly cited statistic about the percentage of lottery windfall recipients who wind up bankrupt—often attributed to the National Endowment for Financial Education—was refuted by the organization in 2018. Money, it seems, really can buy happiness.

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And yet, the myth endures. Stories about the lottery winner “curse” are deployed whenever jackpots approach the billion-dollar mark. Though he won his jackpot 34 years ago, William Post’s story was retold in a Washington Post article just last week, under the headline “As Mega Millions hits $1 billion, winning doesn’t mean a happy ending.”

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Why, despite all the available evidence, does the myth persist? What does it mean that this narrative is believed so widely?

Gambling has long been an alternative form of upward mobility in the United States. For anyone who could not or would not climb the traditional class ladder—or who faced discrimination in the mainstream economy—lotteries offered a seemingly fair shot at the American Dream. Especially over the last forty years, as economic opportunity has dried up or became concentrated in certain pockets of the country, lotteries have served as an important means of trying for a new life.

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But Americans’ enduring love of gambling has long been in conflict with an important element of the nation’s mythology: that the United State is a meritocracy founded on hard work, a place where the smart, the savvy, and the deserving rise to the top, no matter their background. The implication of this ethos is that hard work always yields a just reward. By design, the meritocracy leaves little room for chance.

In this context, the tale of the miserable winner is less a human-interest tabloid tale and more a moralizing lesson about wealth, merit, and class mobility.

All of these stories bear a single message: it is not healthy to win a windfall. The implication is that if someone won money through gambling, they had somehow violated the natural order of the universe and would inevitably suffer a comeuppance to restore things to their proper place.

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The myth reinforces the supposed direct connection between work and merit. Because these winners lost it all, their stories suggest that if they had worked for their fortune, they would have truly deserved it. And anyone who deserves a fortune would know how to live with it, and such a fate would not befall them.

The tale of the regretful winner seems to confirm that a society built on luck is dangerous, even for the very lucky.

The myth, then, is not just an outdated and factually inaccurate narrative. It is a story that reinforces the idea that hard work always and automatically earns just rewards. And it disparages anyone who reasons that it is worth their while to search for an alternative route to the American Dream.

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So lottery fans across the country can play with confidence, and can buy a lottery ticket (or five) when a jackpot like Friday night’s is in the offing, secure in the knowledge that a windfall is unlikely to invite a life of pain, suffering, and regret. The bad news, of course, is that they still face nearly impossible odds of winning. But American gamblers have faced long odds for centuries, and it should not be surprising that so many are so eager for a chance to test their luck.

Update, Jul. 30, 7:30 am: This post has been updated to reflect the Mega Millions’ announcement that one winning ticket had been sold.

Book cover: For a Dollar and a Dream, by Jonathan Cohen.
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