They say money can’t buy happiness, but some of us at work decided to play the lottery anyway. As the recent Mega Millions jackpot climbed toward the billion-dollar mark, the gentleman in the classroom next to mine suggested we get a group together. I had organized a few such groups in past school years, and so when asked, I agreed to take it on again.
I had no plans to do such a thing until I was asked, simply because when you start a lottery group at work, it creates pressure. Some people absolutely want to get involved, but others only get involved because of that pressure. Everyone knows the odds of winning the lottery are horrible, but everyone knows that—every once in a while—people win the lottery. Therefore some members of the group don’t really want to be there at all, but they really don’t want to be the poor soul who has to come to work the next day after 30 people in the building combine to win the lottery.
So a band of enthusiastic participants and a band of reticent participants with FOMO came together, and we collected over $200. That bought us over a hundred lottery tickets, and when the drawing came, we WON! . . . a grand total of $18.
But here’s the thing: no one won the jackpot that night. Now all of us had FOMO. Was I supposed to just cash out and buy doughnuts for the break room when there was still $840 million out there? Of course not, so I emailed everyone in our group and told them I would use the $18 to get nine more tickets for the next drawing.
Then, people starting coming in. As long as I was getting some tickets, I should get a few more, and next thing I knew I was collecting money all over again. This time, the group widened to include a few more members, and we collected over $250, so I bought over 125 tickets for the drawing, and we WON! . . . a grand total of $16. But once again, no one won the jackpot that night. By now you know the pattern, so off we went again, this time with $1 Billion at stake; about 40 of us chipped in about $300, and we WON! . . . a grand total of $20, while someone in Michigan purchased the winning numbers.
There’s two ways to look at this. It would be easy (and perhaps even accurate) to say a group of 30-40 suckers pooled their resources together for the privilege of turning about $800 into twenty bucks. I look at it the second way, because for about ten days, losing that money was one of the best things to happen to me this entire school year.
Look, we all know we’re not going to win the lottery. The odds of winning are worse than getting struck by lightning twice. You have a better chance of getting canonized as a saint than you have of winning the lottery. So you don’t go into it looking to get rich; you’re pretty sure you’re just throwing money away.
Our group at school threw money away. But for me, at least, it was about the first time this school year that I did. I am mask-wearing, CDC-guideline-following kind of person, so since March of last year, my wife and I haven’t gone out to dinner or a movie. Nor did we sit home ordering items off the internet. I am by no means rich (and even a little poorer after playing the lottery), but I spent less money on lottery tickets over the past two weeks than I would have spent on social engagements in a non-COVID ten months.
The question arises, then: If you know you’re not going to win and you know you’re just throwing away your money, why play at all? My answer is simple. For me, playing the lottery is not at all about buying lottery tickets; it’s about renting Hope.
We teach in a public school that routinely ignored local health guidelines in order to get kids back in the classroom, and the I’ll let you imagine the results. On top of that, you may recall we had a Presidential election in November, one that stretched WAYYY past November and only got settled this past week. But then, while waiting for that first drawing, my colleagues and I began to think about something different. Seriously, how many conversations have you had in the last five months that weren’t about COVID or politics?
The lottery changed our thinking. Knowing we had no chance of winning, we began to dream about winning. We began to ask each other all of the “What would you do?” questions that come with the hope of an influx of cash. And then we didn’t win, so we got to have those conversations for another four days, and then we didn’t win again, and it continued.
What I found, in many cases, is how little we might actually need. Most of us had difficulty saying what we might do with A BILLION DOLLARS, but almost all of us could talk about how radically our lives could be changed with a quarter million, or even a hundred thousand, or even less.
We didn’t dream about the foolish, millionaire-playboy kind of things (well, except for one of my colleagues in the Social Studies department, who said he would come to school with a case of Modelo and spend the day making snow angels on school grounds, but if you knew him, you’d understand). Most of us dreamt of security. Pay off our mortgages or our school loans, get a more dependable car, put kids through college—that kind of thing.
We didn’t yearn for untold millions. (Don’t get me wrong, we would have accepted them, had the ping-pong balls gone our way.) What we really wanted was a little bit less worry about how to make ends meet. We wanted more time with our families and less pressure, and for most of us, that was good enough.
There’s a host of conclusions that could be drawn from this, ranging from how pleasant it was to get to know the people I work with a little better, to how unpleasant it is that an advanced society such as ours does not have an advanced social safety net. I could talk about how stressed we are as we shove 25 students into a classroom that isn’t large enough to socially distance while we watch people in other districts begin to get vaccinated. But I don’t want to talk about any of that stuff, because I’ve had a bunch of those conversations already.
Instead, I just wish to express gratitude to the teacher in the classroom next to mine who suggested I start a lottery group. It snapped me out of myself. It gave me something to look forward to. And it proved that money can, in fact, buy happiness, if you approach it with the proper point of view.