Democracy Dies in Darkness

Inspired Life

Playing the Powerball lottery isn't for suckers - it's for optimists

By Colby Itkowitz

January 9, 2016 at 6:00 AM

Brian Kenny of Scranton, Pa., jokes outside City Market & Cafe as he displays a Powerball lottery ticket he bought Friday Jan. 8, 2016. (Michael J. Mullen/The Times & Tribune via AP)

Playing the lottery is like playing dress up as a kid. The fun is in the make believe.  The chance of winning the $800 million Powerball is only slightly more realistic than a five-year-old playing house.

"It comes from the kid in us who believed in magic," said Stephen Goldbart, a psychologist who specializes in the impact of wealth. "That all-or-nothing feeling that anything can happen. That's fun to dip into that place, it returns us to a time in life when we really believed fantasy could change everything."

Standing in line at a liquor store in Washington, D.C. Friday afternoon, Alex Hart, 26, and Brian Tashman, 27, were buying tickets for their small office pool. They spoke rapidly as if each ticket they purchased was a shot of espresso. They planned to spend the rest of the work day discussing how they'd spend their millions.

"The fun thing is I'm never going to work again," Hart said giddily. But they both agreed they'll do charity work and sit on some non-profit boards.

The reason people play the lottery, especially the big pay-outs, even when the chances are 1 in 292,201,338, is about optimism. Despite all the negativity in the world, people are still dreamers.

"We sort of need those moments when we feel some hope. I think they often keep us going," said Frank Farley, psychology professor at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. "So in a very small way this kind of thing can contribute to that. It's living for the future instead of living for the past and that's a very strong quality in human survival."

For Joe Goldman, 25, who recently started his own consulting firm in D.C., the allure of buying in was being part of the societal moment. Likening it to the Super Bowl or the presidential Election Night, he said it will be fun to watch the numbers come in Saturday and have "skin in the game."

He studied statistics and knows he's not going to win, but then added the very common rationale: "Someone's got to win, right?"

The lure of the "what if" plays out ever more profoundly in office pools. No one wants to be the odd person out if their coworkers win millions.

Marc Helman, 33, co-founder of Berkman Financial in New York, is part of his office pool. For him, it's about collegiality.

"We can briefly talk about how we're going to buy crazy houses overseas and crazy cars…it's the price of admission to be able to dream with everyone," he said. "At the end of the day it's all in good fun and gives people a reason to dream together and then commiserate together when they find out some guy in Ohio won."

To all the cynics, Farley – who doesn't play himself – asked, ""What's the alternative use of the $2 that is as interesting and potentially life changing as this?"

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Colby Itkowitz covers health for The Washington Post. She previously anchored the Inspired Life blog and co-wrote the famed In the Loop column.

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