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Life on the Couch

Winning the lottery – when the dream becomes a nightmare

Flickr/Jeremy Brooks, CC BY-SA

People claim the great Australian dream is home ownership. Rubbish. It’s winning TattsLotto. Ever since I was a kid, one question has popped up around the kitchen table, at the pub, over coffee, and even in bed: what would you do if you won TattsLotto?

Recently the dream took a bizarre twist as we followed the story of a seemingly average bloke in Victoria who collected money from his mates for years to run a syndicate, buying dream-rich lottery tickets.

Last year, he apparently quit work quite suddenly, bought a big house and a fast car and began a life of luxury. About the same time, an anonymous winner from Victoria had apparently collected A$16 million in the very same lottery the syndicate had been investing their hard earned money and dreams.

His mates became suspicious. He initially claimed his windfall was an inheritance. They went to court. They’ve now reached some sort of confidential deal, but discussions continue. Life goes on.

The lottery industry

The Tatts Group runs eight lotteries, including TattsLotto, Oz Lotto and Powerball. It’s the oldest continuous private lottery operator in the world. It began in 1881 when a Sydney publican ran a sweep on the Sydney Cup. His name was George Adams. A horse called Progress won that year, but the real winner was George. He went on to found what we now call the Tatts Group.

Each year, Australians gamble about A$20 billion. Pokies account for around A$12 billion, lotteries account for about A$2 billion. Getting exact figures is hard – but of that A$2 billion from lotteries, A$1.2 billion is returned in prize money. The other A$800 million is split between running costs, the Tatts Group and state governments.

That Australians like to gamble is obvious. But it’s mostly on the pokies, the races and, more recently, sports. Some run into trouble – problem gambling affects about half a million Australians. Although buying lottery tickets can occasionally stray into the problem gambling arena, it is rare.

The odds of winning the top prize in TattsLotto with one game are about one in eight million. The odds in Powerball are about one in 77 million. So if you bought one standard 12-game “quickpick” per week, you should win TattsLotto once every 13 thousand years, and Powerball once every 123 thousand years! Of course there are lesser prizes as well, and as they say – you’ve got to be in it to win it! But how many winners do you know?

Flickr/Robert S. Donovan

These odds are so stacked against us, it’s hard to accept we keep believing. But believe we do – every week. If you do win the top prize, you’re fixed for life. Wealth, travel, comfort, privileges… a worry-free existence. Apparently. It’s not the money we dream about, it’s the lifestyle. Winning TattsLotto represents life on easy street.

Does the dream match reality?

Occasionally, there are reports that winning the lottery will herald bad outcomes.

Fortunately, this is the exception not the rule. Not surprisingly, most people who win a lottery or have any big financial windfall have better overall mental health afterwards – meaning less episodes of depression and anxiety. When you ask people about their level of happiness, they report a short period of euphoria after the win, but over time their happiness returns to their pre-wealth level!

As for the dream of leaving your job and living on a beautiful island surrounded by staff… No. Most people stay in the same area and many continue to work in the same job. They just spend more. Similarly, for their general health, there is no big effect one way or the other. This is interesting: mostly wealth is associated with better health. Research suggests the benefits of a lottery win are offset by increased drinking and smoking.

So why do we buy lottery tickets?

Clearly the maths of entering any of the Tatts games doesn’t add up. If you genuinely believed you could make money through gambling, wouldn’t you choose games that didn’t keep 40% of the prize pool? Or buy shares in the companies that run the lotteries?

The only consistent winners of these games are the so-called Tattersalls heirs. After George Adams died childless in 1904, he left the company to a range of employees and a few politicians. Throughout the century, the shares passed through various wills and when the company went public in 2005, about 2,500 Tattersalls heirs reaped the rewards.

I don’t think we can blame the huge success of lotteries on a gambling instinct – gambling relies on intermittent unpredictable wins – and lottery wins are just too infrequent to fuel this human instinct. Gambling is just a small driver of lotteries.

So what’s it all about? To be honest, like most human behaviours, nobody really knows. My money is on the hope idea. Buying a TattsLotto ticket buys you a little bit of hope. A dream. You get to imagine life unencumbered by financial constraints.

holiday. Flickr/saguarosally

You buy the opportunity to sit around and ponder what you’d do if you won. Here’s my list: a long holiday, a new car, a holiday house, a really big and fancy drum kit and reduce work to two days per week. I’d stay anonymous and I’d hire a lawyer, an accountant and a financial adviser. I’d also take care of karma and give some to charity and family!

Lottery tickets let you to do some planning – you ask yourself “What will make me happy?” It lets you compare notes with your friends “You’d quit? Not me, I’d buy the company and sack our idiot manager. Ha ha!” It gives you $8.55 worth of hope. A small price to pay.

As for the Geelong man at the centre of the current controversy – I suspect he’s learning that there’s a fine line between a dream and a nightmare. On the other hand, I’m also reminded of flamboyant pianist Liberace’s catch phrase: “I cried all the way to the bank.”

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