Tonight millions and millions of Americans will be waiting to find out whether they won the whopping $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot. And almost all (or maybe even all) of them will be disappointed.
The chance of winning is about 1 in 292 million, a number that everyone knows is greater than zero, but is otherwise incomprehensibly small. (And that’s by design; last fall, the Powerball gurus slashed the odds of winning, knowing that people focus a heck of a lot more on the size of the jackpot than on the chance of winning it.)
If losing is a foregone conclusion, why do so many people play? For critics, it doesn’t matter. They argue that the lottery is designed to rip off the people who don’t know any better and who can least afford to play.
The critics have a point, but it’s a wobbly one. Playing the lottery is a bad idea… if the point of playing is to win. But that might not be the case at all.
Wait… if people aren’t playing to win, why on earth are they plunking down their cash? The answer: they’re not playing to win; they’re buying the right to imagine winning.
And imagining is such a lovely thing. We watch a tennis match and imagine ourselves right there on the court. We look at travel offers and can almost feel the sand between our toes. And many of us pay a lot more than $2 every time we sit down in a darkened room with sticky floors while gnawing on overpriced popcorn… all for the privilege of being transported — if only for a little while — to a different time and place.
In other words, the best way to win at Powerball isn’t to play to win the jackpot, but to play so we can legitimately dream about winning the jackpot.
If buying a ticket means you can’t take care of yourself or your family, don’t do it. But if you can spare $2, and that ticket buys you the surefire right to dream, maybe that’s not such a bad deal.
P.S. But if you do happen to really win the jackpot, save yourself some heartache and consider taking the annuity.