By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A winning lottery ticket was forgotten in its owner’s purse for weeks. The winning lottery ticket was worth $39 million, but the woman had not thought to check it against the winning numbers. But can money really buy happiness?
The world has often heard the story of the first-time lottery player who picked their numbers at random and won big. It can inspire feelings of amusement, congratulations, and even jealousy. However, a German mother of one added a new twist to the popular tale: This lucky winner kept a €33 million ($39 million USD) ticket in her purse for several weeks afterward because she forgot about it.
Usually we think of big ticket lottery winners as being set for life, or at least happy to be free of everyday concerns like paying rent or a mortgage. But that’s not always the case. In his video series Your Best Brain, Dr. John J. Medina, Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said that money can’t always buy happiness.
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According to Dr. Medina, studies show that 90 days after lottery winners cash in their multimillion-dollar tickets, they return to the same baseline level of happiness they had before they won their fortune. Some even end up committing suicide, like one unhappy winner, Billie Bob Harrell, who famously said, “Winning the lottery is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“He won the 1997 Texas Lotto—worth about $31 million at the time,” Dr. Medina said. “Billie’s prior life had been mostly a financial failure. He had drifted from job to job never earning much money to support his wife and kids.”
After winning the Texas Lotto, Harrell bought plenty of things for himself and his family. He also took them on an expensive vacation and donated to his church. Unfortunately, Harrell made one very unwise decision with his earnings.
“There are companies that leach off of lottery winners, giving them large one-time sums of money in return for their annual earnings,” Dr. Medina said. “It doesn’t always work out well and you can lose big money on these ventures. Billie signed up with one of these scams and lost big money—quickly.”
Within a year, Harrell and his wife had separated. Harrell got depressed, uttered his famous quote about the lottery and killed himself. His “misfortune of fortune” isn’t an isolated case, either.
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“Jack Whittaker […] should have been the happiest man on Earth,” Dr. Medina said. “He won the Powerball Lottery in 2002, worth a cool $315 million ($314.9 million to be exact). That’s enough to make an entire country happy.”
At first, according to Dr. Medina, things went well for Whittaker. He gave away money and bought houses and cars for people. He started a charitable foundation and seemed quite happy in general. However, a bad run of gambling, drinking and driving, and lawsuits for non-payment of gambling debts cost Whittaker most of his winnings in just five years. In fact, Whittaker is most famous for saying, “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”
Dr. Medina said that one of the most potent and certain ways to stay happy has to do with relating to others. For example, cultivating and maintaining friendships helps.
“The more friends you have in your life, and the more you interact with them, the happier you are statistically likely to be.”
Stories like Harrell’s and Whittaker’s lend credence to the tongue-in-cheek proverb that money can’t buy happiness; it can only rent it.