In 1938, a Detroit street sweeper named Joseph Figlock saved the life of a baby falling from an apartment building. A lucky moment, indeed. It was also an odd coincidence, because, according to Time magazine, the same man had performed the very same act just a year prior. Even more astounding? It was reported to be the same baby.
Astonishing tales like this make us laugh in disbelief. But behind the laughter lurks fear: Humans have a deep psychological need for the universe to feel controllable—or at least predictable. “People are much more relaxed if they feel in command, whether they really are or not,” says David Hand, a British statistician and author of The Improbability Principle. “The notion that events might happen just by chance can be terrifying.”
As a species, we persuade ourselves that we can influence random events, a fantasy psychologists call “the illusion of control.” Casino gamblers throw dice more gently when they want lower numbers, according to one study. In another, 40 percent of subjects believed they could get better outcomes from tossing a coin the more they practiced. It’s little wonder, then, that people sit up and listen when self-help gurus claim to offer techniques for learning to be luckier. The good news is that, in some sense, you really can “make your own luck.”
For starters, forget about influencing the outcome of truly chance-based events, like coin tosses or lottery draws. You should also avoid trying to make your own luck by focusing on the outcomes you desire, as advised in New Age bestsellers like The Secret. Research by the psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer indicates that the more people positively fantasize about, say, getting a great job, the less money they end up earning, perhaps because fantasy replaces effort that could get them ahead in the real world. Similarly, people who positively fantasize more about romance are less likely to ask out potential partners on actual dates.
Such findings draw attention to the fact that “luck” is an ambiguous term. We use it to describe life’s sheer randomness—but also to explain those opportunities we encounter because we’ve looked for them. Expose yourself to new people and events and you’re far more likely to meet your next employer—or the love of your life—than if you stay locked in your home. The best approach, research suggests, isn’t a laser-like focus on what you think you want. It’s to cultivate a radical openness to unplanned experiences, loosen your grip on your goals, and embrace uncertainty.
Several years ago, the psychologist Richard Wiseman recruited subjects who thought of themselves as either unusually lucky or unlucky. The self-described lucky ones, he discovered, shared a set of behavioral traits that maximized their good fortune. They were receptive to new experiences and invested time in expanding their social and professional networks; when things went wrong, they reminded themselves that things could have gone worse. By focusing less on their goals, they actually accomplished those goals more efficiently. In one experiment, Wiseman asked participants to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. The unlucky people diligently plodded through. The lucky ones were far more likely to spot one of two messages Wiseman had inserted on the page. The first read “Stop counting—there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” The other offered a $250 reward if the reader just asked the experimenter for the cash.
Wiseman concluded that being too goal-focused can actually interfere with achieving goals, something that bears out when you look at successful entrepreneurs. The popular stereotype of the innovator who envisions a miraculous new product or service and then stubbornly fights to make it real isn’t accurate, according to management scholar Saras Sarasvathy. Rather, the most successful innovators are the ones who are willing to use the people and resources at their disposal to take action—even if they can’t see the endpoint.
Uncertainty feels uncomfortable, so we’re tempted to do whatever we can to get rid of it. But learning to tolerate it instead will bring you better luck. Writer Karla Starr refers to this as “structured serendipity.” Don’t abandon your daily schedule, she advises, but make sure it includes chances for unexpected things to happen. Spend an hour wandering a bookstore; invite a random acquaintance for coffee. On social media, follow some people whose enthusiasms you don’t already share. Leave extra time for errands, to permit spontaneous detours en route.
And whether or not you improve your luck, you can take solace in the fact that you’re certainly luckier than Maureen Wilcox. In 1980, she bought tickets for the Massachusetts and Rhode Island lotteries and picked the winning numbers for both. Unfortunately, her Massachusetts numbers were the winning ones in Rhode Island and vice versa, so she won nothing.
And yet, Hand points out, statistically speaking, Wilcox was no less lucky than anyone else who didn’t win that week. The true lesson of her story isn’t that some people have terrible luck; it’s that almost everyone who plays the lottery loses. Spend those dollars on a cup of coffee with a stranger instead.
The above article by Oliver Burkeman is reprinted with permission from the June 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine.