Although it’s hard to believe, luck is actually something that can be learned. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, known for studying quirky topics, decided to spend a few years using science to learn what luck actually is, and how people can get it. His book The Luck Factor describes his findings, which I’ll review here. Luck seems like a strange thing to study scientifically, but as you’ll see, it can be done.
The common sense notion of ‘luck’ is that it’s what you get when you mix chance with benefit; and both have to be present. For example, accidentally leaving your science experiment out overnight is probably quite a rare occurrence, but it’s not lucky, because it’s not beneficial. Unless your name is Alexander Fleming, that is, and a piece of mould falls into your petri dish leading you to discover penicillin. That’s lucky!
So you’d think that being lucky, by definition, is something you can’t control. Because once you start to control it, you’re taking chance out of the equation. You’re moving away from the concept of luck, and into something else; ‘strategy’, maybe. But isn’t it interesting, that when we talk about luck as a trait – when we say someone is a ‘lucky’ person – we don’t seem to worry about chance? We don’t investigate what they did to improve their odds, we just see some beneficial things and say “they’re lucky.”
From one point of view, luck exists, and is random. From another point of view, nothing is based purely on luck – just better or worse odds. From that perspective, there are things you can do to improve your luck. This doesn’t involve influencing the outcome of completely random events, like lottery draws; it means increasing the chance of certain outcomes happening, like buying more tickets.
This, in part, is what ‘lucky’ people do – buy more ‘tickets’ in all areas of their lives. They think and act in different ways to unlucky people. The end result of these thoughts and actions is more ‘wins'; but as it’s not apparent that they are doing anything different, it seems like pure luck.
Wiseman spent years researching luck, by studying exceptionally lucky and unlucky people, and noticing the differences between them. From this work he devised a system that people can use to become luckier. The system boils down to the following four principles:
1) Maximise Your Chance Opportunities
You’re more likely to win the lottery if you buy more tickets. There are many similar things you can do to increase your chance of having a ‘lucky’ experience. Networking is the main one. The more people you know and are open to knowing, the more likely you are to meet someone who knows of a job vacancy. or has a single friend you’d get on with. This explains why extraverts tend to be luckier than introverts.
But you also need to keep a relaxed attitude. Lucky people buy more tickets, but they are also good at noticing ticket stands when they see them. I’ve mentioned in a previous article that positive emotions have the effect of broadening your attention, while negative emotions tend to narrow it. It stands to reason then, that the more relaxed and happy you are, the more opportunities you’re likely notice. This explains why lucky people also tend to be less neurotic than unlucky people.
The final way that lucky people buy more tickets is by being open to new experiences. They are more likely to try new things, and as a result expose themselves to more potential opportunities – if you do the same things all the time, you’re limiting your chances of having a lucky event happen to you. Of course, the same holds true of having unlucky things happen to you, which is why you need to employ the other principles too!
2) Listen to your Lucky Hunches
Intuition is an interesting thing. Put very simply, intuition works like this: We take in a lot of information as we go through our lives. A a lot this gets stored in our brains. Our brains make links between this information. When we’re in a situation similar to one we’ve experienced before, our brains look to see what that similar thing links up to. Then we get a feeling about it, based on that stored information.
We get a feeling because it’s a fast way to get information to us. Our brain could just as easily flash a string of words into our minds – and that might be fine if we’re choosing between red and green pesto. But our brains evolved in the wild, where decisions are more important. By the time we’ve thought out “better watch out, there’s probably a dangerous animal in that bush ahead of you!”, we might be dead. So we get hunches instead.
Lucky people trust these intuitions, and are better at ‘hearing’ them. They have strategies to help them tune into their intuitions more; things like meditation, and ways of clearing their heads. Unlucky people, in contrast, tend to ignore their hunches, and miss out on some useful information their brains have stored up.
3) Expect Good Fortune
Positive thinking can be quite an annoying thing. At least, reading about it can. It gets thrown around the internet ad nauseum, you can’t read anything about it without getting the predictable picture of a rainbow, and the language used to describe it is always so…cheesy. But believe it or not, that’s not actually why it’s annoying. What’s annoying, is that all those hippies are actually right: expecting good things to happen does tend to make good things happen.
Lucky people, unsurprisingly, are very optimistic. They expect things to go well, so they don’t give up as easily – even when the odds are slim and they’ve already encountered setbacks. They expect to meet good, friendly people, and this attitude is reflected back by the people they meet. Unlucky people are the exact opposite. They expect to fail, so they give up at the first setback, and they expect interactions to go badly – making them nervous.
4) Turn Bad Luck into Good
As well as being optimistic about the future, lucky people are also optimistic about past setbacks. They are well trained in finding a positive spin on a situation, and don’t see setbacks as an opportunity to indulge in negative emotions. An example Wiseman used is this – say you’re in a queue at a bank when all of a sudden a robbery occurs, during which you get shot in the arm. Was this lucky or unlucky?
Unlucky people say things like “Duh, it’s unlucky, unless you like being shot!” Lucky people say things like “Wow! You’re lucky you weren’t shot in the head! Plus you can sell the story to the newspapers and make some money!”
Whether a situation is absolutely positive or negative isn’t the issue here. The relevant point is just the way lucky people think. They find the good fortune in the bad, are convinced things will work out for the best, and don’t sit around dwelling on their ill fortune.
The risk with correlational research is that the findings might be reversed – maybe luck creates good intuition, sociability, and positive thinking, not the other way around. The only way to find out is to do experiments – teach people these principles, and see if they become luckier. Wiseman did exactly this, creating his very own ‘Luck School’.
He explains what happened on graduation day in detail in his book, but essentially he found that luck was the end result of these principles, not the cause. After luck school, unlucky people got lucky, and lucky people got even luckier.
The overview I’ve given here of the principles should be enough to get you started, but if you really want to improve your luck I highly recommend getting a copy of Wiseman’s book, The Luck Factor. It’s very readable and has several laugh-out-loud moments, as well as questionnaires and exercises you can use to measure and improve your luck. And unlike most self-help books, this one is based on years of research – so it might actually work!