“Some people have all the luck.”
You’ve heard that said, and perhaps you have wondered whether it is true. Professor Richard Wiseman, a research psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain, set out to test that proposition, and he subsequently wrote a book about his findings, The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. His studies showed that people can improve their luck, or at least feel that they have, by changing their behavior and attitudes.
Getting luckier by changing your behavior and attitudes will not, however, increase your chances of winning the lottery. Roulette wheels and slot machines won’t notice, either. Rather, your awareness of opportunities, your use of intuition/hunches, your resilience in the face of bad fortune, and your interactions with other people will improve–and the responses will likely be beneficial to you, making you “luckier.”
Dr. Wiseman’s findings uncovered four elements in the difference between those who believed themselves to have been lucky versus those who did not:
1. “Maximize your chance possibilities.” Be alert to opportunities, and act on them. He states this as, “Lucky people create, notice, and act upon the chance opportunities in their lives.” Often extroverts, they network well. With a relaxed attitude toward life, they try new things, get out of ruts, giving themselves more chances to “win.” For example, my youngest brother accepted a temporary research assignment in Great Britain, and there he met a wonderful woman to whom he is very happily married.
Professor Wiseman tested his subjects for alertness to obvious clues in a simple reading experiment. The ones who had considered themselves to be lucky usually found the clues almost immediately. The faction considering themselves to be unlucky generally missed the clues. The lucky were simply more alert than the unlucky.
To gauge their comparative degrees of connection to others, to test their degree of networking, Professor Wiseman had his British study subjects read a list of 15 common British last names and then check how many of these 15 surnames were of people they knew personally. On average, the “lucky” fraction knew many more than the “unlucky” fraction, indicating that the lucky ones were more effective at building networks. Networks are likely to present opportunities.
2. “Listen to your lucky hunches.“ Follow your intuition, not just your reasoning, in personal, financial, and business situations. You can increase this faculty by meditation and by setting aside problems temporarily while your subconscious mind works on them. Falling in love certainly has its intuitive aspects. Sometimes, however, we get a feeling that something is awry, even though we do not know why. Heed both attraction and repulsion. “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know,” so wrote French scientist Blaise Pascal centuries ago.
3. “Expect good fortune.” Create self-fulfilling prophecies by having positive expectations. Expect interactions with others to be mutually beneficial. You will be more attractive as a partner, more likely to establish a win/win outcome. Let your reach exceed your grasp: have high goals. You cannot win if you do not try. “You’ve got to be in it to win it.”
4. “Turn bad luck into good.“ See the positive side of failure: turn that lemon into lemonade; recognize that it could be worse; learn; adapt; forge on; don‘t dwell on temporary defeat.
For examples of lucky versus unlucky folk, Prof. Wiseman cites lucky Jessica, who works at a “dream job,” greatly enjoys her children and has a husband she loves deeply; she feels herself very lucky indeed. Conversely, unlucky Carolyn has been quite accident-prone and unlucky in love. But is it only luck? Success at work and at home often depends on our attitudes. Accidents we cause usually reflect our inadequate alertness. Depending on whom we choose to compare ourselves to, we can feel fortunate or not, making ourselves happier or less so and thus more or less optimistic and more or less attractive to other people. To a degree, then, we make our own good or bad breaks and determine how we react to them. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. But in ourselves….” Shakespeare wrote.
Of course, there are limits. In seeking a partner for romantic love, a guy is thought fortunate to be “tall, dark, and handsome.” Unfortunately, Dr. Wiseman’s principles will not produce these characteristics if not already present. Still, optimism, charm, wit, warmth, wealth, wisdom, persistence, and being sociable can increase any man’s odds of finding romance. Women’s choices can similarly improve their chances, too, beyond what biology and circumstances may seem to dictate.
My thirty-year marriage to Tina Su has brought us both great happiness. Were we just lucky to meet in Chinese 102 at Cornell University? As I wrote in my memoir, Ting and I:
Tina and I like to think we were “fated to be mated.” It seems amazing that the girl from Kunming and the guy from Manhattan could have found each other.
How lucky is that? There are over a billion folk in China. We have here in the U.S. currently a few million Chinese. That’s roughly 1000 to 1 odds of being here, out of China. M.S. [multiple sclerosis, Tina’s affliction] is a one-in-a-thousand illness….Without M.S., Tina would likely have been unwilling to leave her marriage….I nearly went to M.I.T., but my scholarship application was a few days late. Less than one student in a thousand at Cornell was in Chinese 102, so the probability of a randomly picked pair being there was less than one in a million. The random nature of genetic combination means that she could have been born a very different person than she was, the same being true for me.
Some of our love story seems like luck, or fate, but Prof. Wiseman’s principles may have been at work:
1. We created opportunities by going out of our “comfort zones“: I took a Chinese course, rather than French, which would have been more conventional then. I dated [for my first time] a young woman who was not Caucasian. Tina dated a Caucasian [me], despite peer and parental pressure not to; then, twenty years later, to marry me she divorced a overbearing Asian husband, despite her parents’ objections.
2. Love at first sight, and ours qualifies, is clearly intuitive, not rational.
3. We at first believed we could overcome the interracial barriers. When we lost that belief, we separated, upon my graduation. When we regained the belief that we could handle not only interracial issues, but also multiple sclerosis, and step-parenting, we got married.
4. Despite Tina’s quadriplegia, we have persevered, recognizing it could be worse: “better here than Bangladesh.”
Recently, Tina and I were “lucky” again. My former employer, IBM, announced a change to their retirees’ medical coverage that would have cost Tina and me hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. My initial response was shock, but soon resilience set in. I contacted people in the press to make our situation known, thus networking, and they may have been more responsive because of the books I have written…which I had done partly to have the leverage of my “fame,” however local and limited mine is. Perhaps this was intuitive: I was optimistic and affirmative in my dealings with the press and with my former employer. When the policy was altered, to our benefit, I was public with my appreciation. While IBM deserves the greatest credit, our response likely helped us to get a favorable outcome. We felt lucky.
Of course, feeling lucky often helps—but not always, as illustrated in the movie Dirty Harry: after a prolonged chase and a vigorous exchange of pistol shots, heroic lawman Clint Eastwood catches up with the vicious criminal and points his gun at him. The desperado is tempted to move quickly to grab his own gun nearby but is not sure whether Eastwood has any bullets left. “Do you feel lucky?” Eastwood asks. Apparently he did. The bad guy goes for the gun, and Eastwood shoots him dead, having had just one bullet left.
There is much we cannot change. Anything that improves our chances of having happy lives seems worth trying. As Professor Wiseman’s research indicates, we can make ourselves “luckier” through recognizing and maximizing opportunities, trusting our intuition, maintaining our optimism, and responding to set-backs with resilience. Why not try it?
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer, author, editor, and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats, as are a memoir he co-authored, The Shield of Gold, and memoirs he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers and But…at What Cost. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His blog is http://douglaswinslowcooper.blogspot.com. Prof. Wiseman’s book is available at amazon.com.