How a Lottery Dream Can Turn to a Nightmare

Margaret and James Jones, a couple in their 50s who live in a trailer outside the small, working-class community of Washington, Ga., got a stunning piece of news recently. They discovered they were the winners of $130 million in the Georgia Mega Millions drawing -- the second-largest prize in the state's history.

"Now our kids won't have to worry, and we won't have to worry," Margaret Jones told ABC News' "Good Morning America."

But will the Joneses have to contend with a whole new set of worries now?

The lottery seems to promise happiness with just a dollar and a dream, but past winners and experts say suddenly coming into big bucks can turn a person's life into a nightmare.

'I Wish I Would Have Torn the Ticket Up'

That's certainly been the case for Jack Whittaker. Ever since winning the largest single lottery jackpot in U.S. history on Christmas Day 2002 -- $314.9 million -- the West Virginia man has been plagued by troubles.

At first, his mishaps seemed almost comical: More than $500,000 in cash and cashier's checks was stolen from Whittaker's SUV, which was parked outside the Pink Pony strip club; later, another $100,000 was stolen from his car while it was parked outside his house.

Then the problems grew more disturbing. Whittaker was arrested a number of times on assault charges. The body of his granddaughter's friend -- the victim of a drug overdose --was found in Whittaker's home while he was away. After two drunken driving charges, a judge sentenced Whittaker to a 28-day alcohol-rehabilitation center.

Most recently, his troubles have taken a tragic turn. Nearly two years to the day of his big win, Whittaker's 17-year-old granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose near her boyfriend's father's home, wrapped in a sheet and plastic tarp.

Whittaker and his lawyer did not return calls for comment, but Whittaker's wife, Jewel, told The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette: "I wish all of this never would have happened ... I wish I would have torn the ticket up."

Chasing the Dream, but Unprepared for the Reality

Psychologists and financial experts agree -- money doesn't buy happiness, but that doesn't keep us from chasing it.

In a 1978 study, psychologist Phil Brickman and his colleagues followed lottery winners over a number of years and found that after the initial elation wore off, they were no happier on a day-to-day basis than before the win. And, in fact, many winners find themselves unhappier.

"In American society, we tend to overvalue the role of money," said Stephen Goldbart, a psychologist and the co-founder of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute, a San Francisco-based group that advises people who come into sudden wealth. "The American dream equals financial success. It's an empty drug, but most people buy it."

Goldbart, who mainly works with entrepreneurs and those who inherit their wealth, says few people are prepared to deal with sudden money, especially lottery winners who do nothing more than buy a ticket.

Many winners experience a shock to the system, and then reality sets in -- with higher but often unrealistic expectations, increased responsibilities, constant pressure from friends and family to share the wealth, and paranoia about whom they can trust.

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