A Mega Millions sign displays the estimated jackpot of $1.35 billion as a customer purchases a Mega Millions ticket at the Cranberry Super Mini Mart in Cranberry, Pennsylavania, on January 12, 2023. Someone matched all six numbers Friday and won the jackpot, overcoming steep odds that led to three months of drawings without a winner. Sudden wealth will buy you relief from the drudgery of your old life, but what you don’t realise is that you’re about to live a life of stress. Image Credit: AP

I’ll tell you what “wealth psychologists”, experts who use their therapeutic skills to help the wealthy deal with the challenges of quotidian life, not to mention the stigma attached to their status by the unwealthy, will also tell you: Beware the curse of sudden wealth. (No, really, these folks exist and are licensed to practice their new discipline!)

If you play the lottery and you one day win the Mega Million jackpot, as one person living in the state of Maine did last Friday (January 13), get yourself ready to live a complicated and miserable life suffused with stress, wishing all the while that you had torn to shreds that winning ticket that added, as it did in this case, an unimaginable $1.35 billion to your bank account — minus, of course, Uncle Sam’s cut.

Sure, sudden wealth will buy you relief from the drudgery of your old life, starting with telling your boss to “go jump in a lake” (or put more colourfully in Arabic, to “go drink the sea”), buying that dream house in Beverly Hills, or other fanciful hills of your choice, and telling yourself that you are now free, free at last of debt.

Overnight windfall could lead to bad choices

But what you don’t realise is that you’re about to live a life of stress — incessant stress that will dog you right up to the day when, happily, you’ve gone through every penny of your ill-gotten gains.

Forget about living in the land of “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”. Sudden wealth, and certainly sudden wealth on that gargantuan scale, be it $1.35 billion or just a lousy $135 million, that is, wealth no working nine-to-fiver could wrap his or her head around, is truly a dreadful curse. And wealth psychologists, now everyone’s go-to experts on the irrationalities that afflict us in the wake of our coming into an unexpected, overnight windfall, have stories to tell about how it all unfolds and how it all too often leads to a series of bad choices, tragedy, heartache and in some cases violent death.

But first things first.

The person who won the $1.35 billion on Friday may, as of this writing, have remained anonymous but he or she has sure as heck put to the lie the long-held belief that Friday the 13th (which last Friday happened to be) was a harbinger of bad luck, for the odds in favour of winning in the draw were an astronomical 1 in 302 million.

Advice on how to invest your fortune

The ticket was sold at Hometown Gas and Grill, a Mom-and-Pop store in a small town in Maine called Lebanon. (Americans love the Levant, having named 29 of their towns after Lebanon, 23 after the River Jordan, 13 after Palestine and 3 after Syria.)

Alas for the fate that will befall this winner. Alas because the day you become a lottery winner is the day your problems begin, the least of which will be the stress of warding off the “charity” organisations asking for donations, the financial advisers offering their advice (for a hefty fee) on how to invest your fortune, the sudden show of affection by a second cousin on your aunt’s maternal side who wants to share with you a sob story about how his family is going through such tough times — along with a host of other hucksters knocking on your door, leaving your phone ringing off the off the hook and stuffing full your inbox with messages marked “urgent”.

That, I say, is the least of your worries.

Mega Millions Jackpot
A screen is seen at the Hometown Gas & Grill, where a single winning ticket for a Mega Millions lottery jackpot of at least $1.35 billion, the second largest jackpot in US history, was sold, according to lottery organisers, in Lebanon, Maine, US, on January 14, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

It is not easy for us to deal with the trauma — for trauma it is — of sudden, immense, unexpected wealth, for that kind of wealth never fails to alter and then destabilise the very constitution of our personality, our outlook on the world, our self-image and indeed our consciousness. It is a crisis that we find too difficult to handle, too stressful to deal with. The end result is that we end up living on the edge of an emotional precipice, looking into a frightening abyss into which we push ourselves or are pushed by others.

This from the archives of the wealth therapists.

Everly Adams, an unrepentant gambler who against all odds bought winning tickets both in 1985 and 1986, which earned her a total of $5.4 million, had lost it all in no time in Atlantic City, a beloved gamblers’ paradise. William Post won a Pennsylvania lottery jackpot worth $16.2 million in 1988, soon after which his brother was arrested for hiring a hitman to kill him for the inheritance, while an ex-girlfriend sued him for a share of the winnings, leaving him, after all was said and done, with over one million dollars in debt by the time he died in 2006. (In 1993, he told a reporter: “Everybody dreams of winning big money, but nobody realises the nightmares that come out of the woodwork [afterwards]”.

In 2006, Abraham Shakespeare, an African-American, down-on-his-luck unskilled-labourer, won $30 million in Florida. Three years later he was found buried under a concrete slab in the backyard of a woman who had somehow befriended him after his win and who was eventually convicted of his murder.

And so on and on it goes.

The lure of jackpots

And yet we keep playing the lottery, following the dream of winning big. And though the odds of our winning are ever so mockingly remote, we still do so because there’s something in our human nature that needs to buck the odds, something that needs to hope. For when we have nothing, or have little, we have nothing to lose. So we hope. We hope that a winning ticket will change our lives.

In 2021, Americans spent a staggering $98.1 billion on traditional lottery tickets. But look, the lowest income households spend $412 annually on these tickets, which is nearly four times the $105 a year that the highest earning households spend. And at least 3 in 10 Americans in the lowest income bracket play one form or another of the lottery once a week, compared with not quite 2 in 10 who earn more than that.

Our brain is not irrational. It simply has us imagining that if Joe Blow in Lebanon, Maine, could strike it rich, who is to say that we too couldn’t, wouldn’t or for that matter shouldn’t do the same. Our brain, however, doesn’t warn us about what comes in the aftermath of winning or tell us to burn that darn, cursed lottery ticket in our possession the moment we discover it has the winning number.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.