It could be you: Welcome to the dizzying world of instant wealth

How can big lottery winners be helped from letting it go to their heads? One man knows...

When you hear the life stories of the very rich, their success usually seems to have followed the trajectory of a roller coaster. First, there is the dogged, incremental crawl uphill, briefly thankless, towards what awaits at the top, and then comes a great careless swoosh: a tipping point after which money seems to beget more money and everything just takes care of itself. Though there will be further little climbs along the way, the work done in that initial ascent will provide the momentum to drive through all of them. But the work has to come first.

The lottery doesn't pan out that way. The winner's journey from overdraft to overload is instant and jet-propelled, less like a roller coaster than one of those fairground towers that propels you into the sky in a matter of seconds. There's no time to anticipate, to adapt, to ease gradually into your new circumstances. You're still the same person, but you're also not.

This discord is the motor of our fascination with the life of the new lottery winner. Reporters always ask the blinking recipient of great good fortune how he celebrated, knowing that the 48-hour or so gap between getting the news and getting the money affords the chance for an amusing bit of colour. So it was last week after Neil Trotter, a mechanic and amateur racing driver, visited a Londis in Wallington, Surrey, and bought a EuroMillions ticket that would turn out to be worth £108m, enough to make him Britain's fourth-biggest winner. You had to feel a little for his partner, Nicky, who heard Neil, his sense of his own eligibility perhaps somewhat altered, telling the world that he didn't want to get married just yet in case he "regretted it later". For now, though, Neil and Nicky celebrated: they did this, they told the media, with a couple of Budweisers. Budweisers, we all marvelled! Look at this man, richer than David Bowie, and still he's drinking Budweiser! He probably didn't even drink it out of a crystal flute!

We've always liked a gamble, it's true, as the Budget reminded us, with its promise of a tax cut for the nation's bingo fans. But sudden wealth of this incomprehensible sort is a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain. There were the football pools, but the most anyone had won by the time the National Lottery launched in 1994 was a couple of million. The likes of Mr Trotter are almost unprecedented, and as the lottery approaches the 20th anniversary of its first draw, it seems an opportune moment to ask whether their ability to handle such a fate tells us anything about how we are all built: is there a linear relationship between wealth and joy, or is there, as the rest of us might prefer to believe, a law of diminishing returns?

If anyone should have a sense of this, it's Andy Carter, who has the delightful job title of senior winners' adviser. When you call up and claim your prize, Camelot will dispatch Andy, ferryman to the land of the rich, or one of his six colleagues: it's their job to take you by the hand and explain how, exactly, one lives with a fortune. Not everyone wants to publicise their luck; sometimes, if a neighbour makes an unwelcome visit when Andy is there, he has had to pretend to be an estate agent or insurance man. "And we keep in contact with people," he says. "We get invites to children's weddings, because we were there at this unique moment in their life. With anonymous winners, it may well be that we're the only people who know. So while they don't know us personally, they sometimes ring up because they just want a chat."

Neil and Nicky do not appear to have had any qualms about going public. Last Monday, Andy visited their home, and asked Neil to complete some paperwork. He asked for ID, scanned the ticket, and when authorisation came through, asked where Neil would like the cash deposited. And that, in a sense, was that.

In another sense, though, it wasn't. Once the formalities are completed, Andy helps the newly minted – anyone who gets more than £500,000 – work out what's next. He sits them down with financial and legal advisers and encourages them to make a plan. "You have to decide what your objectives are," he says. "You want to make sure it lasts you, and then you know what you can and can't give away, what you can do. Our big advice is to take your time." Sometimes, the winners are so grateful that they want to give Andy some cash as a thank-you. Sadly, he's not allowed to take it. Nor is he allowed to buy a ticket.

I wonder if this makes for a strange, yearning sort of life, seeing so much unearned good fortune as you go about your nine-to-five, but Andy insists he doesn't see it that way. "It doesn't worry me," he says. "Honestly, it's a privilege. You're at the centre of someone's life at this amazing time that they won't ever forget. If there's an issue with the job, it's that it makes you think it's easy or normal to win, whereas, of course, it's so rare."

And is winning good for you? Does it change you? Andy says that it doesn't change your values; it just gives you more choices. There are case studies to the contrary, such as Roger and Lara Griffiths, happily married when they won, separated and broke a few years later after a series of bad investments. Then again, they might have split up anyway. The better way to analyse the effect is to find a large base of players and then see how those who win compare with the rest. When Warwick University's Professor Andrew Oswald did exactly that, he found that the evidence was "overwhelmingly that winning the lottery makes you happier and improves your mental health".

Not everyone agrees. It has been suggested that whatever befalls us, for better or worse, we by and large revert to the mean. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert studied amputees and lottery winners, for example, and found that about three years after their life-changing moment, they had got sufficiently used to it to be about as happy as they were before. Perhaps the lottery's effect has more cumulative power on the rest of us than on the Neil Trotters: in the half-light of normality, a weekly flare of outlandish hope.

Whether that hope is a pleasure or a cruelty is hard to say. We are certainly more hard-headed about it all than we used to be, as a study of the progress of Camelot's slogans will suggest: from the warmly optimistic "it could be you" to a line that acknowledges that, for most of us, the win will remain a fantasy, and is most healthily understood as such: "imagine what you'd do". I don't know if such poignant fantasies are good or bad, but I know they're inevitable. Indeed, for the first time in absolutely ages, I'm thinking of buying a ticket.

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