THE HOME ECONOMIST

Florida Lottery provides lesson in mastering art of self control

 

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MIND OVER LOTTO

Buying lottery tickets could provoke the kind of materialistic thoughts that wreck your self-control. John Tierney, author of Willpower, Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, says self-control is like a muscle you can build up over time. To build up yours, try:

•  Setting clear goals, tracking your progress and rewarding yourself for meeting them.

•  Making small every-day changes that require concentration — sitting up straight, using your weaker hand to open doors, eliminating contractions from your sentences — will increase your self-control in other areas.

• Avoiding temptations and saving up your willpower — which works like a muscle in that it gets fatigued — for when you need it most.


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The Florida Lottery is taking advantage of the event-packed winter season by setting up shop at major events. The sweepstakes, which helps fund education, took a sales booth among the glittering yachts at the recent Miami Boat Show and gave browsers the opportunity to purchase their favorite lottery games, according to its website. Coincidentally, the lottery reported record statewide sales on the show’s final day.

“Twenty-one Florida Lottery games had sales of more than $1 million last week,” said lottery Secretary Cynthia O'Connell in a press release. “This is good news across the board.”

Indeed it is good news, but perhaps it’s not a surprising notion to think that the idea of luxurious days at sea would prompt a person to take a chance in the lottery. But scientists were recently fascinated to find it also works the other way around: buying a lottery ticket — even in a yachtless environment — will cause some people to have the kind of materialistic thoughts that can diminish their self control and eat away at their overall happiness.

“It’s natural for lottery buyers to dream about winning big and to think about how to spend,” says Hyeongmin (Christian) Kim, an assistant marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University. “But happiness doesn’t come from possessing a lot of materialistic stuff.”

The problem with mental visions of material goods is that they’re usually pretty concrete. Rather than fill our heads with abstract thoughts of, say, a general category involving luxury items, those of us buying lottery tickets wind up thinking pretty specifically — Bertram yachts, BMW cars and Prada bags, says Kim. Concrete thoughts — which cause many people to seek immediate gratification — are known to undermine self control.

“Some examples include impulsive buying and excessive debt,” says Kim.

Kim performed a series of experiments. First, he assembled a group of subjects and instructed the members of one half to each buy a lottery ticket with a $1 million jackpot. Afterwards, when asked to write their thoughts, the ticket-holders reported more materialistic feelings and strong preferences for small, but immediate, rewards than the other group.

In order to defer instant enjoyment in favor of bigger rewards later we need self control. People with lots of it make more money, are better off financially and physically, and are happier than those without self-imposed limits, says John Tierney, author of Willpower, Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Willpower, however, is like a muscle in that it gets fatigued over time but can be strengthened with simple exercises and diligent monitoring.

People who find overspending is a problem should set goals and track their progress — a job even better accomplished when it’s outsourced to a computer program, says Tierney. Mint.com is great for alerting over-spenders it’s time to stop while RescueTime.com will let you know you’re on-line shopping when you should be working, he says.

“People with good self-control conserve their willpower,” says Tierney. “They go on the offense instead of the defense.”

That means they avoid temptation and minimize the number of shopping decisions they have to make each day, says Tierney. Chronic over-spenders should carry only cash and avoid stores. Actual shopping should be done with a strict list.

Beyond those steps, you can build up your willpower when at home doing tasks that are simple but familiar. Sitting up straight, speaking in complete sentences and the decision to ban curse words from your vocabulary are all activities that require your concentration, says Tierney. And increased focus on one area can spill over to more discipline in finances, work and even music.

“It’s why religious people have more self-control,” says Tierney.

Meanwhile, regardless of where it comes from, materialism makes people miserable, says James A. Roberts, a professor at Baylor University. That’s because people are social creatures — happy when they’re members of tight-knit families or surrounded by close friends. Being overly concerned with acquiring new clothes or cars, however, separates us from other people. It causes us to compete with them or compare our stuff with their stuff.

“It works in the opposite direction of everything we are as humans,” says Roberts.

What’s more, materialism will always leave us unsatisfied thanks to the evolutionary work of adaptation. While evolution helps humans adjust to changing climates or environments or even new physical conditions, such as blindness, it means we become quickly accustomed to everything we own, says Roberts.

“Adapting is what helps us to survive as a species,” says Roberts. “So whatever new level of wealth we get doesn’t make us happier, it just raises the baseline.”

But excessive spending can raise the level of debt we have, says Ellen Siegel, a certified financial planner in Miami. If thoughts of materialistic items have lowered your self control and racked up your debt, Siegel suggests you line up all your credit cards and start paying off first the one charging you the most interest. How much money should you put toward this?

“Every penny you don’t need for food shelter and insurance,” she says.

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