The curse of the lottery: why winners are not as happy as you might think

One of the most frequently uttered comments when people are asked what they would do if they won the lottery is: "I'll quit my job immediately."

But the self-described "Three Amigos" - two schoolteachers and a school administrator in the US state of Maryland, who claimed their share of the US record $US656 million ($640 million) Mega Millions jackpot this week - said they would keep working.

The two women and one man, who have been juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet, told Maryland lottery officials they were too dedicated to the children they worked with to leave their schools.

"They were so clearly committed to their kids," Maryland Lottery director Stephen Martino said of the teachers. "They both said, 'Yes, I can't give up my kids.'"

Their decision to stay in employment and spend the winnings in moderate amounts matches the advice given by financial and happiness experts.

People who suddenly experienced a financial windfall needed to focus on experiences, which would have a more positive impact on their well-being, rather than buying the latest new toy

Although suddenly coming into a lot of money is seen by some as the key to happiness, the experts said such a view could not be further from the truth.

In an often-quoted 1978 study, titled Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?, three psychologists found that lottery winners were "not in general happier than" the control group.

The accident victims, while less happy than the control group, did not reveal as dramatic a difference in their level of happiness as the psychologists expected, the study found.

"[Lottery winners] initially believe they are a lot happier. But in a few months, their happiness levels are back to normal," said social science lecturer, Professor Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong.


And the tragic circumstances surrounding some past lottery winners - from being murdered, to murdering someone, to spending all their money on drugs and alcohol - have led the US media to coin the phrase "curse of the lottery".

In Australia in 1960, eight-year-old Graeme Thorne became one victim, when he was killed after being kidnapped following his father's £100,000 win in the Sydney Opera House lottery.

In the US in 2002, Jack Whittaker took home $US315 million in winnings, but experienced a series of personal setbacks in the following years, including the death of his 17-year-old granddaughter, who had reportedly become a drug addict.

His ex-wife, Jewell, declared later that she "would have torn the ticket up".

The right decisions had to be made from the beginning, said Sydney financial planner Arun Abey, who has written about the links between wealth and happiness in the book How Much Is Enough?

That means putting your winnings in a one-year term deposit and focusing on working out what was important in your life, he said.

"When something potentially life changing happens, it's inevitable that your perspective is narrow," Mr Abey said.

"Your initial response is to do things within the narrow frame you've always been in. It takes time to have a wider perspective as you are ingrained by the circumstances you have known all your life."

Even the decision to move to a new, wealthier neighbourhood could be fraught with difficulty, Professor Martin said.

"You could move to a bigger house in a nicer suburb. But you've left your previous relationships ... and are now with a different group of people with higher expectations."

Mr Abey said people who suddenly experienced a financial windfall needed to focus on experiences, which would have a more positive impact on their well-being, rather than buying the newest toys.

"You want the experiences that you are still reliving years after and things that can help you enhance your [current] relationships.

"For example, as a parent, if you wanted to teach your children to use money wisely, you could invest the money in allowing them to travel to a place where they would nominate a charity or charities they would donate to.

"If you wanted to buy a holiday property, you could choose one where you could share your experiences with family members and friends," he said.

"Look at wealthy people who have set up charities," Professor Martin said. "Happiness research would suggest that [they] would get more satisfaction from giving money away instead of spending it."

Ellwood "Bunky" Bartlett, an American who won $US32.6 million in a 2007 lottery, said arranging to have your winnings issued yearly, and then placing the money in a trust fund, was crucial.

"Otherwise, everybody and their brother will find you and try to get money from you," he told The Baltimore Sun.

The paper described Mr Bartlett as a "soft touch who gave away millions to friends and strangers".

"He hired his buddies, bought them first-class plane tickets, officiated at their weddings and helped them buy homes - only to watch helplessly as long-standing relationships disintegrated."

But while admitting that he also had several failed business ventures, he was grateful for the opportunities his sudden wealth had given him.

"Winning the lottery buys you time.

"Before I won the lottery, I had to go to work, I had to do this, I had to do that, I had to, had to, had to. Now, if friends call up and ask if we want to go on a cruise, we don't have to plan years in advance. We can just go."