Gambling advertising typically portrays hitting a lottery jackpot as the height of happiness. In the newspapers, however, we often read stories about how big lottery winnings have brought misery. A study at the University of Gothenburg gives a truer picture.
Sociologist Anna Hedenus made a survey of 429 people who had won a lot of money on the lottery. She also interviewed 14 big prize winners. The focus of her research is on the extent to which lottery winnings have changed attitudes toward work and leisure. Knowledge about this contributes to an understanding of how people value these different aspects of life.
The study is presented in Hedenus’ thesis At the End of the Rainbow – Post-winning Life Among Swedish Lottery Winners. Her research shows that in most cases, the winners continue to live their normal lives, neither wasting nor sitting tight on their new-found wealth.
Only a minority of the winners used the money to spend less time on work. However, the amount won is important for post-winning decisions. The bigger the sum won, the more likely it is that people in various ways reduce their amount of work. Winners continue to work because they perceive work as important, rewarding, providing social contact and enhancing self-esteem. There is also a social norm that you should work rather than just idle away the days.
The thesis includes chapters on lottery winners’ presentation of self and earmarking of money won on the lottery. The qualitative interviews give very interesting glimpses of how people may perceive a big lottery win – as some kind of divine gift, as something they deserve, or as a bit risky since it might be counterbalanced by some unfortunate event. I have myself explored such symbolic and cultural meanings in newspaper reporting on lottery winners in a paper published 2007 in the International Gambling Studies: The Good, the Bad and the Unhappy: The Cultural Meanings of Newspaper Reporting on Jackpot Winners.
On March 11, Hedenus successfully defended her doctor’s thesis. I was member of the examination committee, so I have read the thesis carefully. It is a very solid study that significantly contributes to our knowledge about how big-prize winners manage their money and lives. It also tells about the reactions that they get from family, friends, colleagues at work and people in the neighborhood.
The book renders a picture of winners who carefully and under full control invest and use the new-found wealth wisely. There is nothing, however, about people who spend their winnings quickly – the squanderer is present in the study only as a mythical figure in cautionary tales about how not to handle lottery winnings. Without doubt, there are winners who spend quickly and unwisely, and then feel that it had been better if they had not won the money in the first place. And there are also winners who spend quickly, have much fun, and afterwards regret nothing. Such winners are invisible in this study. One reason for that may be that the survey focused on work-related issues and included no questions that clearly identify people who rapidly have spent or squandered the money. It may also be that such winners are very few. I would be surprised if they were more than ten percent of the big lump sum winners. Thus it remains to be studied how common it is to spend big lottery winnings quickly and the motivations for doing so.
I recommend this well-written and interesting book!
Read more about Hedenus’ thesis At the End of the Rainbow – Post-Winning Life Among Swedish Lottery Winners