People have a natural urge to gamble. Lotteries, like baseball games or the stock market, are just one way to indulge that impulse. But there are real costs, and the chances of winning can be much smaller than the odds of being struck by lightning or winning the Powerball jackpot. And even if you win, the money won’t necessarily make you happier or less stressed. Some lottery winners find their wealth brings with it a downturn in life, as shown by studies of people who have won big.
The word “lottery” dates to the middle of the 16th century, but there are records of similar games dating back as far as the Chinese Han dynasty (205 BC to 187 BC). During that time they were used for everything from granting land to military units to funding public projects. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, many states began using lotteries to raise funds for the Colonial Army. Some states referred to them as hidden taxes, and Alexander Hamilton warned that they could lead to “unscrupulous methods of raising money by hazarding trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain.”
The prize amounts of today’s mega-lotteries have been driven by the popularity of television shows that feature huge jackpots, allowing these prizes to become newsworthy and attract new players. But there’s more going on here than just advertising and publicity. Aside from the innate urge to gamble, lottery commissions also promote two messages: that playing the game is fun and that it’s a great way to support charitable causes.