News, Culture & Society

Will winning the lottery make you happy? It depends on how you play, gambling psychology expert says

Tonight, $1.6 billion is on the line for the Mega Millions lottery – and many Americans taking the gamble may believe their happiness is, too.

The lottery is haunted by rumors of a ‘curse’ that befalls winners and, they believe, sends them to ruin, isolation and illness. 

But others follow the tales of winners who have gone down in history for using their windfalls to save cities, help children or give it away to strangers.

Whether all that money will bring bliss – or boredom – depends on what kind of gambler you are, explains Ohio State University psychologist Dr Ken Yeager.  

As countless Americans await the announcement of the winning numbers for tonight’s $1.6 billion Mega Millions jackpot, a psychologist explains what makes a happy lottery winner

Dr Yeager, who invested in $10 worth of lottery tickets for tonight’s Mega Millions drawing, already knows what he would do with his winnings.  

But these hours leading up to the announcement of the winning ticket are the best part, he insists. 

The lottery and the frenzy that surrounds it, he says, is all based on the ‘theory of fantasy.’ 

‘The interesting thing is you can keep it, as long as there’s no obvious evidence to the contrary. 

‘So, if a teenager thinks they’re going to be a rock star, but they can’t carry a tune, all you need to do is record him and play it back to him. That will kill that fantasy.’ 

But with the lottery, there’s no proof you won’t win – until you don’t.  

And that means that everyone playing keeps right on believing they might win, despite the fact that the odds are worse than ‘being struck by six million bolts of lightning,’ says Dr Yeager. 

Not all lottery gamblers are alike, however, and how they play may dictate how they win, he says. 


We’ve all met these people: men and women who believe they have a magical combination, or that their mother’s birthday is a harbinger of good luck, or that using their children’s birthday announces their merit to the cosmos. 

‘These are folks that don’t have a problem with gambling,’ says Dr Yeager. 

Other conservative gamblers won’t spend bother with a lottery pot of a measly million dollars.

Then there are the card counters, who are get more excited about black jack than Mega Millions, and are a particular fascination to Dr Yeager. 

We’re all winners until the numbers are drawn

Dr Ken Yeager, Ohio State University psychology professor and gambling expert  

Though you can’t ‘count’ the lottery, these people are ‘prone to go for the patterns,’ he says. 

‘They have analytical minds and tend to fall into work of professional lives that favor mathematics because they have this natural ability to see patterns developing in numbers that people who are English or non-science majors don’t have.’   

For the mathematically-minded, there are 300 million possible number combinations and the odds of winning tonight’s lottery are one in 302,575,350. 

But there is some statistical truth to one lottery ‘pattern,’ Dr Yeager says. 

‘The longer you are away from something significant happening, the more likely it is to happen,’ explains Dr Yeager. 

‘So some gamblers will argue that the farther you are from a win, the closer you get to that big hit.’  

And Dr Yeager says that the most these more conservative gamblers will fare the best in the (unlikely) event that they win. 

‘I think those that risk the least are the ones that are most surprised when they win and are the happiest,’ he says. 

And the mathematicians ‘are less likely to be excited for a win. It’s not how much, but hte fact that they did win that satisfies them,’ he added. 

‘They’re also less likely to give [the money] to charity. They see it as an investment and it gets folded right back into the scheme.’ 


True gamblers are easy to spot, according to Dr Yeager. 

‘Those who really like to gamble, it really bothers them if people around them get lottery tickets and are not scratching them off right away,’ he says. 

About 2.6 percent of the American population has a gambling addiction, and casinos are designed to stoke their compulsions. 

‘There’s just enough winning that you’ll keep playing,’ says Dr Yeager. 

The gambler and the [habitual] lottery ticket buyer are both gamblers, and they keep doing it for the random reinforcement

‘These are the hardcore people. They put $20 in and they’re not getting anything out, so they put in another $20.’

If they play long enough, they’ll eventually get some small sum. 

‘That’s how it’s set up: you get enough that you never get so hurt, but you keep playing,’ says Dr Yaeger. 

Gambling addiction is akin to shopping and sex addictions, which exist on a spectrum and are psychological rather than physiological (unlike alcohol or heroin addictions, which are physiological), says Dr Yeager. 

‘The gambler and the [habitual] lottery ticket buyer are both gamblers, and they keep doing it for the random reinforcement,’ he explains. 

And those prone to addictive gambling behavior tend to be the ones who don’t handle winning as well. 

‘Common factors of when people do crumble is that then they go into other addictive realms,’ says Dr Yeager. 

‘For example, they stop working and start drinking more and that leads to poor decision-making that causes them some trouble. 

‘But the overwhelming majority don’t do that.’

Dr Yeager is confident he will not fall into that trap. 

If he wins tonight, ‘I wouldn’t quit my job, I wouldn’t be the type of person that doesn’ go to work or have something going on somewhere,’ he says. 

‘But I’d give money to the university to build a behavioral health clinic, and take more of an advisory role, pay off my kids’ houses, and set up college funds for my children’s children (when they come to exist.’ 

After a moment of thought, he added: ‘Maybe I’d buy a house by the beach.’ 

For now, though, the playing field is level and the fantasy is alive. 

‘We’re all winners until the numbers are drawn,’ Dr Yeager said.     



Comments are closed.