How the Lottery Makes People Happy

In a world of growing inequality and limited social mobility, lottery offers a sliver of hope to those who play. It may seem counterintuitive but winning the lottery really does make people happy, argues a new book on the subject by James Bessen.

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is recorded in ancient documents and is an enduring practice. Its modern incarnation dates to the fifteenth century in the Low Countries, where towns held public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

During the nineteen-sixties, as states struggled to cope with inflation and rising costs, they began casting around for solutions to their budgetary crises that did not enrage an increasingly tax-averse electorate. Many turned to the lottery.

As the odds of winning rose, more people bought tickets, but ticket sales were still not enough to cover all state expenses. To bridge the gap, states began to advertise that a percentage of lottery proceeds went to a line item in their budgets—often education, but also elder care or public parks or aid for veterans—which appealed to voters.

As more and more states adopted the lottery, the price of a ticket fell and more people played. Today, there are more than thirty-five lotteries in America and they generate billions of dollars a year in ticket sales. While most people play for the money, others are attracted to the idea of winning and believe that it will change their lives. Regardless of why they play, the truth is that winning the lottery is addictive. Almost everything about it—from the way the tickets look to the advertising campaigns and math behind them—is designed to keep people coming back for more.