The Joy of Not Winning Powerball


Charity begins at home… particularly when that home can be whatever house you want, anywhere in the world. Maurits Zwankhuizen explains.

Recently, the United States had Powerball fever. Millions of people threw their hard-earned cash at a dream. With a crazy betting plunge prior to the draw on Wednesday night, the prize money surged to an incredible $1.6 billion, the largest amount in lottery history anywhere in the world.

That’s billion, with a “b”.

Within hours, it was reported that three people had shared the winnings, one each in California, Tennessee and Florida.

This entire ritual might seem like the epitome of greed, citizens competing against each other for a golden ticket, for a passport to a life where they need never want for anything ever again.

Surely there is nothing truly good which comes out of these enormous exercises in wishful thinking. Surely no-one, bar the lottery agencies themselves, gain anything of value from this worship of numerical randomness.

We hear regularly of lottery winners who find that their sudden wealth does not bring them any greater happiness and indeed only leads to more problems. Having won big, they splurge and live the high life, only to come crashing back down to earth, often losing family and friends along the way. Either their huge windfall runs out much faster than expected or it comes at the expense of happiness and common sense.

With the major prizes in most lotteries now routinely running into hundreds of millions, the money ceases to be simply an eraser of debts; rather, it can transform lives. A cool million will pay off the mortgage and the car, and set up our children’s future. Ten million bucks allows us to get everything top-of-the-range and take 5-star holidays several times per year.

But $1.6 billion is almost unfathomable.

A common saying is that this much money is equivalent to the GDP of a small African nation. And indeed, that is the case – Gambia has a population of almost 2,000,000.

So, even in this age of excess, what can the average lottery winner spend such a massive fortune on? A trip into space? A mansion in Malibu with a Bugatti Veyron in the garage? Even with purchases like these washed down with Dom Perignon, most people would be hard-pressed to get through more than $100 million.

So take heart, for there is generosity in this gluttony. As the amount fed into the lottery machine increases, so does the likelihood that the winners will donate a large proportion of their prize money to those who need it most.

There are many examples of big-time lottery winners making enormous donations over the years, benefiting charities, churches, and a range of other worthy organizations.

At first glance, this sort of philanthropy seems like a counterintuitive response. People strive week after week, year after year, for the chance to win and no longer be a 9-to-5 slave. The chance of winning is so infinitesimal – the odds for the Powerball draw were quoted as being 1 in 292,000,000 – that giving away a significant portion of it, and indeed in some extreme cases all of it, seems like utter lunacy.

We may be selfish creatures at the surface, but deep down many of us are educated to be selfless for the sake of our own family and the larger family, which we call society. In the case of multi-million dollar prizes, we can have our cake and give it away, too. We can live a life of luxury but also alleviate our guilt by bequeathing monumental amounts to those near and dear to us, and those in need.

The three individuals who managed to pick the winning numbers in the US are the envy of the world. Instead of begrudging them their good fortune, we should try to temper our frustration with the thought that, whenever someone strikes it this lucky, charities and other deserving organizations will have a really high chance of coming into big money as well.

Those are odds worth betting on.

Maurits Zwankhuizen is a freelance writer based in Canberra in the ACT.