We say it all the time: ‘Good luck!’ It’s certainly a fine wish of benevolent good will towards someone. But do you ever really think about what it means?
What is ‘luck’? Or does it even exist?
The best answer I know to this question is a saying I once heard. It went something like this: ‘Luck is when choice meets opportunity.’ This is exactly right, I thought. The expression ‘good luck’ is a recognition that none of us controls everything in life. Regular readers of this column know that I stress the importance of recognizing what we can’t control as a cornerstone of sound mental health. One thing that we cannot control are all the opportunities that come our way. But, there’s still much more to life than mere ‘luck.’ We all have choices about what we can do with the opportunities that do come our way. And we can make opportunities as well. Look at all the stories of entrepreneurs, inventors and innovators who made a fortune carving out a niche in some business or area that didn’t previously exist, but for which there turned out to be high demand. I realize there are no guarantees, and that most people are not going to become rich and famous. But we can all learn from the examples of people who are proactive about their lives instead of helpless.
Part of ‘good fortune’ is recognizing a good thing, or a good opportunity, when it happens–and nurturing it, sustaining it over time. This is the bulk of good fortune–suggesting that it’s far less about ‘luck’ and more about choice than most of us realize.
For eight years, psychology professor and researcher Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire in England, studied the psychology of luck. He conducted thousands of interviews and experiments, culminating in a book called ‘The Luck Factor.’ Wiseman’s conclusion, from years of study, is that there really is no such thing as luck. It’s actually a person’s attitude. Certain attitudes, he says, give rise to a situation of ‘luck.’ Key to this attitude is what he called ‘counterfactual thinking.’ He doesn’t mean, by ‘counterfactual,’ a denial of facts, but a particular way of looking at reality. After a car accident, one person will say, ‘I can’t believe I was in another car accident. How unlucky I am!’ Another person with the same experience will say, ‘Wonderful. Yes, I had a car accident. But I wasn’t killed. And I met a guy in the other car, we got along really well, and there might even be a relationship there.’
But aren’t there clearly unfortunate, undesirable, even tragic things that happen to people? Common sense says yes, of course. Wiseman distinguishes between luck and chance. Luck, he says, is a psychological state of mind, while chance is something objective. ‘Chance events are like winning the lottery. They’re events over which we have no control, other than buying a ticket. They don’t consistently happen to the same person. They may be formative events in people’s lives, but they’re not frequent. When people say that they consistently experience good fortune, I think that, by definition, it has to be because of something they are doing.’
Wiseman hits on two very important ideas here, in my view. One is that chance is like winning the lottery: infrequent, and mostly devoid of choice. One of the saddest things I can think of is a person who approaches life like it’s one big lottery. Such people hope to win ‘their share,’ but they honestly have no conception that they have any say or sway in what that outcome will be. This is a recipe for depression if ever there was one, and it’s a pretty futile way to live. Whether you realize it or not, when you hold the ‘lottery’ attitude (and you don’t have to play the lottery to hold this attitude), you’re placing the outcome of your life entirely in the hands of unseen forces. It’s like imposing dictatorship on yourself, and never even knowing it. You’ll never realize the potential or actualize the opportunities you do possess, and will never know all that could have been possible.
The other important thought in Professor Wiseman’s statement is that chance events (good or bad) are not all that frequent. Even though a chance event, if extreme enough, could be formative and life changing, chance events are so infrequent, over the course of an entire life, that it makes no sense to consider them as all-important. In other words, life is much more about creating and cashing in on opportunities, and developing talents, than it is about enduring or reflecting on chance events. Take, for example, the ultimate unfortunate event that we’re all going to experience at some point: death. Is the fact that we’re all going to die someday proof that life is hopeless and futile? Only a profoundly depressed person will say, ‘yes.’ The inevitably of death is profoundly important once it comes, but through the course of a mentally healthy person’s life, it’s really not that significant. You don’t dwell on it and you don’t revolve your life around the fact of death, other than to avoid it through healthy and safe living, and so forth.
To some, Professor Wiseman’s attitude might be that of a Pollyanna, but he certainly has it right when he says that people who consistently experience ‘good fortune’ are not merely ‘lucky,’ but must be doing something right. They must be operating on a series of sound principles of how to live, such as knowing when and why to take risks and when to be more cautious. If you know somebody like this who seems ‘lucky,’ try to get to know him and find out what’s right about his thinking and decisions, over time. Admiration, not envy, will ‘unlock the secrets.’ Luck, as the saying goes, is nothing more than choice meeting opportunity’for those willing to make the choices. Once you understand this, you’ll be a ‘lucky’ person indeed.