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Dana Parsons

The $300,000 Question: Did You Like Hitting the Jackpot?

November 09, 1994|Dana Parsons

I wish I had a gumdrop for every time someone walked up to me and said, "Zounds, man, why so glum?"

Of all the answers given over the years, never have I said, "If you must know, I recently came into a large sum of money. It has me quite upset."

Mind you, I have never come into a large sum of money, but even if I had, I promise you it would not have bummed me out. Until now, the only thought I've given to the subject is that should I ever hit it big, I wouldn't tell any friends or relatives. Let them figure out for themselves why I suddenly became more petty and hateful.

Believing that reaction to be nearly universal, imagine my surprise to read that four university researchers, including one each from Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine, got federal grants to study what happens to people who hit a lottery jackpot. Talk about hitting the jackpot, the researchers got $300,000 from the National Science Foundation to finance a project until 1997, during which the research team will interview about 200 people who won at least $100,000 and another 200 who won smaller prizes.

(Initial reports are that the researchers were very happy to receive the $300,000.) Just wondering: Could this be a preview of Chapter 1 of their findings?

The study hopes to delve into the largely unexplored questions of how sudden wealth affects a person's attitude, health, happiness and spending habits. I have no insider information, but put me down for $2 on the line that says all of those things will be improved by winning $1 million.

As part of the researchers' curiosity about how spending habits change, they plan to look at winners' dining-out habits. "We'll ask people how often they went out to eat before they won, and then how much they went out to eat afterward," Cal State Fullerton psychology professor Michael Birnbaum was quoted as saying. The context for that will be to see if revised spending habits lead to lifestyle changes that could bring on stress.

The researchers also will ask the jackpot winners if, for example, they intend to quit their jobs or take big vacations. Then, the study will keep track of them to see if they follow through on their stated plans.

Whether the public will have the patience to wait for those results is unknown at this point.

It won't stop there, however. The study also will examine how the big bucks affect the way the nouveau riche make decisions, according to Birnbaum. There's a whole theory surrounding that, too, but believe me, you wouldn't be interested.

If your response so far is that this is a practical joke, it is not.

Birnbaum explained the project by saying that everybody talks about what happens to people who hit it big, but that there isn't much research available.

Not to be a wet blanket, but there is a fairly obvious reason for that. Birnbaum may not like the answer, but it lies in the essential difference between academe and virtually everyone else.

While Birnbaum is correct in saying everybody talks about lottery winners, he fails to ponder whether everybody is so curious that they'd want the government to spend $300,000 on them.

*

To simplify it, picture a ballot proposal yesterday: "Should the federal government (or anyone in their right mind) spend $300,000 for a four-year study on the effects of hitting the lottery?"

As the political consultants might say, that's a tough sell.

The good news is that the government must be more flush than previously thought. Either that, or the people at the National Science Foundation have one hell of an insatiable curiosity about things.

I wonder how the folks over at the soup kitchen or the homeless shelter reacted when they see how easily 300K can be had.

I'm skeptical of the survey already.

For starters: If the new millionaires tell the researchers that their wealth has made them unhappy, I presume the follow-up question will be, "Then, why not give it back?"

It's simple enough. If you don't like your car, you trade it in. If a spouse makes you miserable, same thing.

Both of those deeds would be more difficult than returning all or part of $1 million. In fact, studies have shown that you can unload a million bucks quite easily these days and thereby restore yourself to a state of peace and serenity.

At this early stage, my guess is that the final report will closely paraphrase whoever it was who said, "I've been rich and I've been poor, and I like rich better."

In the meantime, I'm thinking of submitting my own research-grant application.

Subject: The effects on the psyche of the American public when they hear that $300,000 is being spent on such things.

Parsons Online: * Missed one of Dana Parsons' columns? There's always a collection of recent ones available through the TimesLink online service. Parsons is also taking questions from subscribers on the TimesLink bulletin board in the Speaking Out section.

Details on Times electronic services, B4.

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