How good fortune is self-generated: the personal and social benefits to feeling lucky

Luck is usually a matter of perspective – yet those who think they have it often end up attracting more success.

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Imagine that you are driving home from work one day when a stranger throws a brick through your car windscreen. It flies past your left ear and lands on the passenger seat behind you. Once the shock has subsided, would you curse your misfortune? How unlucky you were to have been the victim of such mindless violence? Or would you shake your head at your good luck? Had the brick flown an inch to the right, it would have killed you.

We tend to form a fixed idea about when we are lucky and when we aren’t, but luck is usually a matter of perspective. Imagine this time that you are offered your dream job. You’ve been working towards this role for years. You went through several rounds of interviews and each time you stayed up all night, brainstorming possible questions and preparing perfect answers. Afterwards, you call your best friend to deliver your good news. “Wow, you really lucked out!” they reply. They might be right.

Luck tends to play a bigger role in success than we think. For a start, our life chances are to a great extent determined by which country we are born in and who our parents are. A 2016 report by the British government’s Social Mobility Commission found that only one in eight children from a low-income UK family is likely to become a higher earner themselves. 

We win or lose the birth lottery in other ways, too. Our talents and intelligence, as well as qualities such as industriousness or grit, are at least partly inherited, not only through genes but also because they are influenced by our upbringing and the values and opportunities we are presented with. A person’s chances of succeeding are also influenced by other random factors beyond their control: a 2012 paper in Economics Letters found that people born in June and July were less likely to become company chief executives.

Whether or not you achieve your goals also depends on how lucky you feel. In a 2010 experiment, Lysann Damisch at the University of Cologne found that people became better at memory games or putting golf balls when they were first primed to feel lucky, by being given a lucky charm or told to “break a leg”. The superstitious participants became more confident, which improved their performance.

The British psychologist Richard Wiseman has found this to be true more broadly: people who believe they are lucky tend to attract more good fortune because they create and notice more chance opportunities, are more resilient and are more likely to have self-fulfilling positive expectations. He ran one experiment in which self-described lucky and unlucky people were given a newspaper and told to count the number of photographs they found in it. The “lucky” were much more likely than the “unlucky” people to spot the large text on page two that said, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” They were also much more likely to spot a second message, written in two-inch-high letters that said, “Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” Wiseman found that unlucky people tended to be more anxious, and their anxiety prevented them from noticing the unexpected.

There’s one more reason why, if you don’t already feel lucky, you should. Research has found that when people feel more grateful they tend to be more generous. For example, one Cornell University study offered participants a cash prize for filling out a survey about a positive thing that had happened to them. After they had completed the survey, they were invited to give some of their cash prize to charity. Those who had been primed to think about external factors were 25 per cent more generous than those who wrote about their personal contribution to their success.

Our views on luck influence our politics, too. According to the Pew Research Center, around 66 per cent of Republicans believe the rich are more hard-working than the rest, while 21 per cent think they have had more advantages in life. Among Democrats this ratio is reversed.

Once we recognise how little control we have over our lives, that success and failure can be as random as a coin-flip, everything changes.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad