opinion

It's not (all) about the money

People play the lottery for a wide range of reasons beyond that of just to win large sums of money.

It's not (all) about the money

Discover the top reasons why people play the lottery.

There is no question that the lottery business in the U.S. is an abundantly rich source of revenue.

In fact, according to a recent report published by the National Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, in 2023, sales of lottery tickets in the U.S. totaled more than $98 billion, which in terms of ticket sales amounted to more than 63 billion tickets having been sold.

Yet, while the U.S. lottery appears to focus solely on the money aspect of the games, e.g., sizable amounts of money to be won and numbers of happy players that have won, we were out to show how and why potential monetary gains (despite how sizable they may be) are not the sole reason driving millions of people to play on an annual basis.

On behalf of ourselves and the legions of lottery players everywhere, we became curious as to the lottery's tremendous allure.

In the article in Psychology Today titled, Lottery-Itis, Dr. Stephen Goldbart, author of “Affluence Intelligence” and co-director of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, relayed:

[The lottery] lets you believe in magic: that you will be the one who spent a little and got a lot; that you will defy the extraordinary odds against winning.

Wondering if this is the sentiment driving the majority of players, we conducted a number of informal polling sessions in Chicago, Illinois, at a variety of neighborhood convenience stores and local gas stations.

What is your motivation for playing?

The money

So, without any further ado, as one would likely guess, first on (almost) everyone's list was the potential to win big amounts of money. While not surprising, what made us want to learn more was whether the possibility of huge windfalls of cash was more a reflection of a desire to live an extravagant lifestyle, e.g., one featuring yachts and luxury trips, or a matter of necessity, where living on a shoestring budget, one would put the extra money toward paying bills and putting food on the table?

As many can relate, nine times out of ten, the answer is that the pursuit of 'free' money (and who wouldn't want that, right?) tends to fall somewhere in between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-existence.

For many players with whom we spoke —while hitting a big jackpot would be great—on most days, just winning back a little more than they put out would be enough to bring a smile to their faces.

As explained by George Loewenstein, a professor of behavioral economics at Carnegie Mellon University who has conducted extensive research on the motives that drive people to play the lottery:

The lottery serves a psychological function for people. … Our pleasure of living is not only based on our current situation but what could be, what we can imagine our situation could become.

The takeaway? Should people be willing to recognize that the odds may not always be in their favor, they can better appreciate the fun and excitement that come along with playing.

Or, as Professor Lowenstein phrased it:

Buying a Powerball ticket is a license to fantasize -- to dream.

Hence, regardless of whether one wins or loses, it really is important to appreciate the experience.

If you (and I'm definitely one) still want to win more than you lose, then a little more mindful approach has the potential to, shall we say, up the ante a bit.

For in our everyday lives, we continually get intuitive thoughts that we ignore or push away. But, if we find ways to harness and apply these recurring thoughts, the potential exists to adopt a more selective and/or strategic pattern of play.

Habit

Beyond money, we discovered a large swath of people who, as loyal players, have a dedicated 'routine' around their lottery buying habits.

Not only do they attest to being habitual players, but players who have sizable winnings to show for their efforts also revealed that they often closely track previous days' drawings in an attempt to determine the frequency by which certain numerical combinations are drawn.

Familiarity & comfort

Even though the ability to foretell the winning numbers remains forever beyond our control, it does not mean we cannot enjoy our attempts to break the code.

Rather, many shared how they consider playing the lottery to be a bright spot in their lives—they often look forward to playing at both the start and close of the day.

Contributing to their fondness, players said they tend to have a  'preferred list' of venues where they regularly purchase tickets, something that gives them a sense of community whereby they will be greeted by their first name by many of the  'players,' e.g., the cashiers and managers who work at and run the various stores where they play. And, taking this a step further, the store clerk often may even know their regular customers' numbers and/or scratch-off picks without being told.

While this may sound like a small thing, within what can be a chaotic and sometimes disconcerting world, players heralded the connectedness and grounding they got as positive by-products.

Strategy

As we previously touched upon, the amount of effort a player puts into their game selections can totally take their level of play to a whole new dimension.

For example, playing one's lucky numbers on a regular basis has long been a ritualistic activity involving people's wishful thinking that their time will come. For this reason, they must play every day—for if they skip for even just one day, their numbers will certainly be drawn.

Therefore, carving out a regular time to play the lottery can be helpful so one doesn't forget to buy their ticket on what could be their big day.

Plus, consider reviewing the play habits of persons who employ labyrinth-like methodologies to select their numbers, as they often have beneficial strategies and techniques (more like complicated tabulations and statistical tracking of previously won numerical combinations) from which we can glean insights and tips to employ in our everyday play.

What we came to understand is that these strategies offer us, as players, the means needed to feel more in control and masterful over final outcomes.

Additional reasons why players play include:

Diversions and distractions

The purchase of tickets can offer respite to a person on what may be an otherwise lackluster day. A way to break up one's day, lottery play can help add a little excitement and reset the mind, allowing the rest of the day to flow better and bring in greater amounts of productivity.

Entertainment/designs

For some:

It's more about the fun and entertaining elements that lottery play offers, particularly for those who buy scratch-offs, as state lotteries tend to swap out certain games on a monthly basis.

As child-like wonder takes over when looking at the vast array of ticket options, this can remind them of simpler times and, as such, bring a bit of joy and delight into their daily adult, responsibility-laden lives.

Charitable/philanthropic

Then they're the noble and generous gestures the giving of lottery tickets affords us, the opportunity to brighten someone's day and/or recognize a special occasion or show our appreciation. The explanation we were given goes like this:

Nice, relatively inexpensive way to show my appreciation, bid them adieu, offer good luck, wish someone a happy birthday, anniversary, or demarcate some other significant event in their life.

Essentially, we found the reasons why people play to be infinitely endless, for hope and possibility abound when playing the lottery.

Life beyond the ordinary is the hope, and at the end of the day, who couldn't use a little monetary, err, momentary distraction?

At this point, we want to remind you that Lottery games may contribute to addictive behaviors and, therefore, should be played responsibly.

The elements within this article are only suggestions and, in no way, intended to offer any guarantees or absolutes with regard to the outcome of playing the lottery.