Time to give luck a chance?
A leading psychologist has studied luck – and has found that it often has a lot to do with attitude and personality
Is luck a matter of luck? That question has perplexed philosophers, writers and psychologists for millennia. The old maxim that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity dates from the first century Roman philosopher Seneca.
Many of the fundamental things in life are a matter of luck. Looks, height, genes and, to a great extent, intelligence are all things that are part of the lottery of life.
Who we are born to is the single most important determinant in life. A child born into a prosperous middle-class family in the developed world is already at a significant advantage than a child born to a drug addict in a developing world slum, for instance.
Nevertheless, there is more to luck than luck, according to Prof Richard Wiseman, the UK’s only professor of the public understanding of psychology, a post he holds at the University of Hertfordshire, who has made lucky individuals one of his principal areas of study.
He has interviewed hundreds of self-described lucky people and those who are down on their luck.
He has concluded that those who consider themselves lucky are lucky for a reason, principally because they put themselves in a position to benefit from any luck that comes their way.
There is an old joke about the man who asks God to help him win the lottery. When he doesn’t win, he asked God again, time after time. After multiple petitioning, an exasperated God answers back: “Do yourself a favour, son, go buy a lottery ticket.”
Luck corresponds with optimism and bad luck with pessimism. Wiseman concedes that there are things that people cannot change and things they can change and those who have the wisdom to know the difference are the ones who thrive.
“You make your own luck by the way you think and behave. There is a psychology behind it,” he explains.
Lucky people are instinctively more optimistic, more open to change and have the ability to cope with life’s vicissitudes better.
Extroverts tend to be luckier than introverts and more sociable.
He cites the example of one businessman who struck up a conversation with another on a plane to find that both had a business idea in common which they were able to bring to fruition.
If the businessman was not inclined to talk to strangers, the encounter would not have happened.
Wiseman concedes that much of his thinking around luck is more common sense than anything, but common sense is not always so common and many people are their own worst enemies when it comes to grasping life’s opportunities.
From his research, he has distilled luck into four attributes.
Listen to your gut instincts – they are normally right.
Be open to new experiences and breaking your normal routine.
Spend a few moments each day remembering things that went well.
Visualise yourself being lucky before an important meeting or telephone call. Luck is very often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many of these techniques are already used by motivational psychologists to improve performance. Sports people frequently use visualisation as a tool.
Changing mindsets also forms the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the psychological technique which seeks to change how we view the world by examining how we think about our situation.
“One of the big problems with unlucky people is that they believe they are going to be unlucky in the future and, therefore, don’t try very hard,” he explains. “They say things like ‘I never prepare for an interview because it always go badly’. These things become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is easy to get stuck in a rut.”
A change of luck can come with a change of mindset. “I remind people that other people have changed.”
For instance, an opera singer he knew was down on her luck and kept losing out at rehearsal stage. Nevertheless, she persisted, kept making the phone calls and sending out the emails before eventually landing a part in a major opera.
“I’m not saying there is an easy solution here. I’m not saying that everybody can be a high-level opera singer,” cautions Wiseman.
Wiseman is in Ireland for a lecture hosted by the newly launched Lloydspharmacy chain, which was formerly DocMorris.
In advance of his lecture, Lloydspharmacy conducted a survey of 2,000 Irish adults to find out if they felt lucky in life.
The survey revealed that 86 per cent of Irish people claim to be a “glass half-full” type of person and over half (59 per cent) say they feel happy when they wake up each morning.
The research could be dismissed as being entirely contrary to the facts on the ground, but it chimes with other research, international and domestic, which confirms that the Irish remain a remarkably contented race despite the economic calamity visited on the country in recent years.
The recent World Happiness Report, conducted by researchers at Columbia University in New York, found that the recession has barely affected Irish people’s sense of wellbeing.
It ranks Ireland 18th in the world with an average happiness score of 7.076 (out of 10) for the years 2010 to 2012.
This is just 0.068 less than the score of 7.144 recorded for the years 2005 to 2007 at the time when the Celtic Tiger was at its height.
The researchers concluded that people constantly overestimate the impact of the economy on their sense of wellbeing and underestimate intangibles such as a sense of community solidarity and friendship, and Ireland ranks among the highest in the world in that regard.
“The survey seems to be suggesting that resilience is a trait of the Irish people.
“The big underlying factor with happiness is linked to friends and family because there is enormous social support,” he said.
A talk by Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology, will take place in the Royal College of Physician’s, 6 Kildare Street, Dublin, on Thursday, October 10th, 2013, at 7pm .
Tickets are free of charge and are available in Lloydspharmacy outlets or at lloydspharmacy.ie