The Lottery of Life


In the modern world, many countries have lotteries and every week many millions of people participate in the hope of suddenly acquiring a substantial fortune. A striking thing is that it’s often quite disadvantaged and uneducated people who are most enthusiastic about lotteries. We might smile at their folly in getting statistics quite so wrong – if they had the wisdom and mathematical intelligence to understand how slim their chances really were, they’d surely never bother. The chances of winning the largest payout is 1 in 14 million (nearly the same probability as being one of the Queen’s children, currently a 1 in 15 million chance). We naturally feel a bit sorry for people investing in such slender hopes. They are taking aim at an impossibly small target.

But we’re no better. We may not have a sense that we’re playing any kind of lottery – and yet we are: the Lottery of Life. We too are clutching tickets of various kinds and setting our sights on statistical near-miracles – even while we think we’re being utterly sober, rational and level headed. The crucial place where this lottery-like behaviour happens is in relation to our hopes of happiness in two areas in particular: love and work.

If we were forced to spell out a picture of an ideally successful life, it might go something like this. We early on pick just the right area of work to apply ourselves to, swerve neatly into new fields at the ideal moment and get public recognition, money and honour for our efforts. Work is fun, creative and utterly in line with our talents. There are similar satisfactions to be had around love. After a spate of compelling and passionate relationships, we meet one very special beautiful, kind and devoted person who understands us completely – often without us needing to communicate with words. Sex is extraordinary and children and domesticity never grind us down. We enjoy perfect health and retire with the feeling of having accomplished what we set out to do, and enjoy a dignified, respected old age, admired by our descendants and occasionally exercising a deft guiding touch behind the scenes as an eminence grise. We die gently in our late nineties of a non-painful illness in a tranquil, flower filled room, having written a wise and generous will.

Such scenarios occur about as often as a payout at the Lottery. But (to our surprise, despite our education and apparently realistic and practical natures), we may have strongly invested in some modified version of just this form of fantasm. We don’t quite grasp just how rare and strange ninety years on earth without major disasters in love and work might actually be.


Our brains – the faulty walnuts through which we assess reality – have a  habit of fatefully misunderstanding statistics. We imagine some things are much more common than they really are. We might suppose that half of new businesses are a great success. In fact, it is less than two per cent. We readily suppose that a lot of people have flat stomachs – though in Australia, for instance, only 4% of adults over 45 have a slender physique. In the UK about half the population feels worried about money on any particular day; half of marriages collapse and sixty percent of the population feel that no one really loves them…



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