Why Does the Lottery Often End in Tragedy?

Bag full of cashVisions of winning the lottery are enough to turn just about anyone into a dreamer who fantasizes about helping family members, starting charities, and—of course—buying a few nice cars and homes. But a 2006 study published in the Journal of Health Economics found that while lottery winners experience extreme happiness after winning, their happiness levels return to pre-lottery levels not long after.

For some lottery winners, winning the jackpot leads to utter misery. Bankruptcies, divorce, family troubles, and mental health issues including suicidal ideation sometimes come along with winning the lottery; many winners have met disastrous or tragic ends. How can a dream come true turn so rapidly into a nightmare?

Massive Change
Statistically speaking, happy life events such as the birth of a baby, a new marriage, or buying a house are among the most stressful experiences a person can have. Lifestyle changes require rapid adjustments, personality alterations, and negotiation of new boundaries and relationships with loved ones.

The lottery is no different. Going from rags to riches overnight can be overwhelming. Not only must a lottery winner plan for what to do with the money, he or she must negotiate changed relationships with friends and family, the challenges of a new lifestyle, and the potential boredom that comes with no longer working. People are vulnerable to depression and anxiety during major life changes, and the lottery may ignite a cascade of negative psychological and interpersonal events.

Poor Preparation
Low-income people are more likely to play the lottery than other groups; some analysts have even argued that the lottery functions as a “tax on the poor.” People who are unaccustomed to balancing complex budgets may be ill-prepared for the financial demands that come with winning the lottery. A $100 million jackpot might sound like a lot, but when it’s split between 20 relatives, a dozen charities, 10 new cars, and five houses, it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Predatory financial planners may also prey on lottery winners, taking large commissions in exchange for poor or nonexistent advice.

Unceasing Demands
The moment a lottery winner wins, the phone starts ringing. Charities, friends, family members, and political causes all want a piece of the action. The price of saying no can be costly, particularly among family members who don’t understand why deep-pocketed lottery winners can’t finance their dreams—or at least their basics. Relationships may be left permanently broken, and the constant demands from strangers and loved ones can be crushing.

Little Credibility
Unlike people who build businesses or even inherit their money from successful parents, lottery winners might not be readily welcomed into the club of the super rich, and they may be derided as simply lucky. A lottery winner who dreams of building a charity or a new business might be questioned about his or her competence. Jealousy over winnings can cause people to say hurtful, mean-spirited things, and a lottery winner might spend the rest of his or her life hearing that the good fortune is not deserved. Pressure in the form of stress, anxiety, guilt, and self-image issues can add up.


  1. Adams, S. (2012, November 28). Why winning Powerball won’t make you happy. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2012/11/28/why-winning-powerball-wont-make-you-happy/
  2. Doll, J. (2012, March 30). A treasury of terribly sad stories of lottery winners. The Atlantic Wire. Retrieved from http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/03/terribly-sad-true-stories-lotto-winners/50555/
  3. Spector, D., Lubin, G., & Kelley, M. (n.d.). 18 signs that the lottery is preying on America’s poor. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/lottery-is-a-tax-on-the-poor-2012-4?op=1

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  • Michal

    April 4th, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    This seems to me like a case of Money does not buy happiness.

    Plus the other issue is that people that earn their money understand how to manage their money. People that do not earn their money but are given the money really have no clue as to how to handle that influx of funds.

  • Andrea

    April 4th, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    I wish that I had this problem and could give it a try. I have tried every system available to win the lottery but have not found a good system. Maybe just maybe I should count my graces and be happy that I have not had the opportunity so that I cannot have the downfall after the euphoria.

  • taylor

    April 4th, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    interesting to note how so many lottery winners have ended up being in miserable conditions or not even living to fully enjoy their winnings.while it is easy to say that I will not change no matter how much money comes my way,doing so in reality is tough if not impossible.and not just the change in oneself but also the sudden income is bound to bring changes in those around us.and that can be extremely tough to get away from.while the changes in one can be controlled,the same in others cannot be.I would rather live my mediocre life than be overwhelmed with a lottery only to lose things and people that are more precious to me than money could ever buy.

  • Barbara Drescher

    April 4th, 2013 at 4:56 PM

    My parents won the lottery and experienced some negativity, but overall it was super beneficial. Life is what you make of it. If you are not in a positive, healthy frame of mind prior to winning a large sum of money, then you won’t be afterward. The lottery solves nothing about how you cope with life. People can and do have fulfilling lives post- lottery. Let’s face it, our society doesn’t teach us how to have a healthy, mature Outlook. Regardless of whether you win the lottery or not, you can look at the trials and tribulations as either horrible experiences or growth opportunities. I would like to know how well adjusted to life those people were who didn’t do have success after winning. There lives might not have turned out well regardless!

  • nick

    April 5th, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    Really, I think that most of it all boils down to the fact that most people, even though they play the lottery to win and to win big, most of them aren’t prepared for the amount of pressure that does go along with coming into a large sum of money like that.
    Most of them are people who have never had anything, so they don’t know how to manage money and end up in all sorts of trouble with that. The you have “famiy” coming out of the woodworks asking for a handout and it becomes hard to dscern who is your friend and who is looking for a free ride.
    I am not saying that I would turn the money down if I won it, but I would make sure I hired myself a very strong team of financial advisors shortly afterwards so that I could make sure that my family and I were safe and protected from al of that.

  • rainbow

    April 6th, 2013 at 11:55 PM

    I cannot handle too much of excitement and become breathless. A lottery would certainly freeze and kill me!

  • A S

    May 22nd, 2022 at 8:15 AM

    The first thing anyone should do is buy a couple of annuities so there is a lifetime of comfortable-level income, much better than before. If you want to do other things too, fine, but don’t end up needing to work again.

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