The Personalist Project

"Guess what?" my father used to announce as he walked in the door after work. "I won a dollar in the lottery today!" 

He won a dollar in the lottery every day, by not buying a ticket. 

That helped build up my immunity to lotteries, but it wasn't the only factor. When I was about ten, my grandparents took me and my sister Abby to Atlantic City and gave us $20 each to play the machines. We started winning right away. Then we won a little more. Then we won a lot more, so of course we kept playing, We wondered why everybody didn't just do this all the time. Then we lost a little, so of course we had to keep playing Then we lost a little more, and pretty soon we were back to our natural state--dead broke.

Later I cashiered at Cumberland Farms and saw how many people bought tickets, and how few were ever rewarded for it. A couple did win five or ten dollars, but that was after they'd spent a hundred or two.

Powerball was up to $1.6 billion by the time three people split the jackpot yesterday.  The chances of winning were estimated at 1 in 292 million. What's the attraction? What is it about money that makes people defy all reason for such a minuscule chance at wallowing in it?

It's not really so mysterious. A few years ago, I recalled the words of my professor, William Marra, who taught us that "money is happiness in the abstract." I've never heard it expressed better. As I saw it:

Money seems to bestow the power to be happy in whatever way we might turn out to desire.  It represents an open-ended guarantee that, should a wish arise, we’ll be able to satisfy it.  Money means control and protection from the unexpected.  At least, maybe that’s the illusion lurking in the back of our minds, and the real reason money has such a hold on us. 

Al Kresta (of the outstanding Kresta in the afternoon radio show) did a segment on money and lotteries the other day, with an eye to American perspectives. As he points out, criticism of consumerism is sometimes rare here, since the last thing our overblown marketing industry wants us to get into our heads is that buying a product could ever lead to unhappiness. Besides, it's consumer confidence that makes the economy hum, right? Therefore, consumption isn't self-indulgence: it's a virtuous, even a patriotic act.*

Al says the more money you have--even when earned the usual way, little by little--the higher your expectations rise. Once you can afford nicer and nicer things, you feel entitled to get more and more satisfaction out of them, and you're likely more dissatisfied with them than someone who had lower expectations in the first place.

Studies confirm this sort of thing. Except in cases of extreme, Bangledesh-style poverty, where money means the difference between survival and starvation, the correlation between money and happiness is negligible. 

Other sayings I've heard seem to ring true. One is: the more luxurious your life, the more superficial it becomes. Your attention inevitably gets drawn away from what matters most and towards all the things you can never "take with you." As Pope Francis says, there's a reason you never see a U-Haul being pulled along after a hearse.

Another saying mentioned on Kresta's show is this: "Money does not change you; it just unmasks you." We're all prevented from succumbing to certain temptations just because we can't afford them, and we're all prevented from certain acts of generosity for the same reason. Lack of money is like lack of power and fame: it's easy to feel morally superior to Justin Bieber or Bill Clinton, but are we sure how we would act given the possibilities for good and evil available to them? 

Sometimes people will say money is a neutral tool. Sure it is, in theory. The pieces of metal and paper we call coins and cash are no more intrinsically evil than any other material thing. On the other hand, that's naive. Some material objects, and the power that goes with them, are much more liable to be used in harmful, abusive, and damaging ways than others. A computer or cell phone is an unimaginably useful tool, opening up incredible possibilities for disseminating goodness, truth and beauty. But, as the meme has it, "I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers."

So, you didn't win the lottery? You're likely to remain unmasked?

Consider yourself lucky.


*I'm a non-economist if there ever was one, but this is a sleight of hand that even I can detect. If consumers are confident because their income and job security are strong and their savings are plentiful, they may spend more freely, which makes for numbers that indicate that the economy is humming along nicely. If people have no job security and no savings but are addicted to their credit cards, they may spend just as freely, which also makes for numbers that indicate everything's fine. It's not the spending as such that's positive, healthy or virtuous. 

Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jan 15, 2016 10:20am

I'm susceptible to lottery fever. I imagine what we could do with the Personalist Project, for instance, if money were no object, and then I'll think I'll buy a few tickets, and maybe God will confirm that my will is His will too by causing us to win. :)

But a funny thing happened the other night at the dinner table. One of our sons asked what we would do with the money, "Would we move?" We both said no we wouldn't move; we like where we live. We started mentioning other things we could maybe get, after we'd set up a foundation to give most of it away to good causes: nicer clothes, another car, classier furniture, more travel, graduate school education for all our kids....

Okay. All that would be nice. But none of it would be hugely life-improving. Lots of it would have significant downsides. The more we thought about it, the more it seemed the concrete benefits of having tons of money were all very minor and marginal, while the problems that would come with being responsible for the right use of hundreds of millions of dollars would be miserable.

The fever broke. I stopped hoping we'd win.

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