OK, I admit it: I bought a ticket for the Powerball lottery this weekend. After multiple drawings with no winner, the grand prize hit $800 million, and could surpass $1 billion before tonight’s drawing.
I’d argue that it’s not totally irrational to play. At $2 a ticket and jackpot odds of 1 in 292 million, that’s a positive expected value (although of course taxes complicate the picture, and it’s less if you choose to take the winnings as a lump sum).
Still, it makes no sense to me that there’s so much more excitement just because the grand prize is bigger. Is there really a practical difference between winning, say, $5 million or $500 million? Either way, you’d be set for life if you made wise decisions, and either way you could end up back where you were before or worse if you squandered it all.
The only thing that sounds exciting to me about a bigger jackpot is the chance to do more good by giving more of it away. But even if a genie appeared to me and told me that I could spend as much money as I wanted, but only on myself, I couldn’t imagine spending anywhere near that much. Pay off debt, or buy a slightly bigger and nicer house, or travel more often? Sure.
But I can’t imagine what need or desire anyone could have that takes a billion dollars to fulfill. With that much money, you could buy a $100 million Central Park penthouse, or a fleet of luxury cars, or a small army of personal servants, or a private island, but why would you? Those things don’t make you any happier. Every humanist ought to know that material possessions have no relation to happiness, once you have enough to provide for basic needs, and can even detract from it.
To me, it’s all about perspective. If you’re reading these words, you probably already have a better life than 99% of the human beings who’ve ever existed. Material luxuries won’t appreciably add to that. It’s fun to dream about what life could be like if you had fabulous wealth, but if the extraordinarily improbable ever happened to you or me, it would be better by far to live frugally and use the rest to do some good in the world.