New Year’s Day is just a memory, and I hope you consumed your share of black-eyed peas and turnip greens. Each portion is purported to bring financial luck in the coming year. The proof for all this apparently lies in the fact that the peas and greens are good for the digestive system. (The correlation between digestive health and fiscal success has yet to be fully explored.)
Be that as it may, “Good luck!” is a fine wish of benevolence and good will. The best definition for luck is, “Luck happens when choice meets opportunity.” The expression presupposes that we can’t control everything. My regular readers know that identifying what we can (and cannot) control is a cornerstone of sound mental health. But there’s a lot more to life than mere luck. We have choices over what we do with whatever opportunities come our way. Look at all the innovators who made a fortune carving out a niche in business that didn’t previously exist. We can learn from those who are proactive. The essence of good fortune is recognizing an opportunity and then nurturing it over time. It’s less about “luck” and more about choice.
For eight years, professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in England studied the psychology of luck. He conducted thousands of interviews, culminating in a book called “The Luck Factor.” He concludes that there really is no such thing as luck. Certain attitudes, he says, give rise to what we call luck. This particular way of looking at reality is called “counterfactual thinking.” For example, after a car accident, one person will say, “I can’t believe I was in car accident. How unlucky I am!” Another person with the same experience might say, “Yes, I had a car accident. But I wasn’t hurt, and I actually met a nice person in the other car. Who knows … there might even be a relationship there.”
Of course, there are tragic events that do happen by chance. Wiseman distinguishes between luck and chance by saying that luck is a state of mind, while chance is something real or objective. “Chance events are infrequent, like winning the lottery. They’re things over which we have no control … and they don’t consistently happen to the same person. When people say that they consistently experience good fortune it has to be because of something they are doing.”
Chance, like the lottery, is devoid of choice. It makes me sad to see a person who approaches life like it’s one big lottery. They sit and they wait — and wait — hoping to win “their share,” with no clue that they have any say in the process. Placing events and outcomes entirely in the hands of unseen forces is a sure recipe for depression. Outspoken Las Vegas magician Penn Jillette says it perfectly: “Luck is probability taken personally.”
Even though an extreme chance event could be life changing, they are so infrequent that it makes no sense to consider them as all important. Life is more about creating and cashing in on opportunities than it is about reflecting on chance events. Take, for example, death (the ultimate unfortunate event). Does the fact that someday we’re all going to die prove that life is futile? Only a profoundly depressed person would agree. The certainty of death is important once it comes, but in the flow of a mentally healthy person’s life, it’s just not that significant. You don’t dwell on it and you don’t revolve your life around it — other than to avoid it.
The simple fact is that people who consistently experience “good fortune” must be doing something right. They must be operating on a series of sound principles, such as knowing when (and why) to take risks. If you know somebody like this who seems “lucky,” find out what’s right about his attitudes and thinking. If you know someone who seems to be consistently “unlucky,” take an objective look at his or her lifestyle. Is it risky? Haphazard? Your observations will reveal the secrets behind their “luck.”
Famed moviemaker Samuel Goldwyn summed it up best: “The harder I work, the luckier I get!” So, enjoy your New Year’s peas and greens, but MAKE yourself lucky by recognizing opportunities and shaping them into the successes you want them to be.
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