You climb into your car, ready to tackle a busy day of must-do’s, but instead, your engine makes an ominous sound and decides not to start. By the time you realize that your battery is dead, you’re already late for your first appointment. Oh no, you think. Today of all days, this has to happen. I must just be unlucky.
“In this moment, when we throw up our hands and chalk up a challenging situation to bad luck, we start blaming external factors, which makes us feel helpless,” says researcher Karla Starr, author of Can You Learn to Be Lucky? ($4.99, Amazon) And this feeling of losing control quickly ratchets up our stress levels.
“When we feel like matters are out of our hands, stress chemicals called catecholamines are released in our brain’s prefrontal cortex, causing the neurons that control thought, action and emotion to disconnect from one other,” explains Amy Arnsten, Ph. D., a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale. “When I experience this, it feels like my mind is going blank, and I become distracted, disorganized and overwhelmed. But it is possible to break this vicious cycle.”
Indeed, studies show that many outcomes we attribute to being unlucky actually have predictable causes, and by recognizing them, we can tip the “serendipity scales” in our favor.
Read on for expert tips to help you discover more luck in your life.
Mere Exposure Effect
Improve Your Luck By Showing Up
You’re up for a big promotion, but your colleague gets the plum position instead. You always keep your head down and work hard while your promoted peer is more social, so you end up feeling hurt and confused. “When we think we’ve been rejected, we feel less safe, and that can trigger a strong stress response,” explains Arnsten. “What’s more, when we feel insecure, we tend to withdraw further, perpetuating our feelings of being overlooked.”
“One of the best ways to improve your luck is simply showing up,” says Starr, stressing the importance of attending get-togethers or speaking up in meetings so you’re top of mind for promotions and opportunities. “The more people see you, the more they perceive you as a positive presence.” This phenomenon, called the “mere-exposure effect,” is proven to make folks think of you as friendlier and more competent.
Follow Your Instinct
Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover
Your new neighbor rubs you the wrong way—while you can’t put your finger on why, you trust your gut and politely turn down her invitation to a barbecue she’s throwing to help her get to know folks. The problem? “Our intuition comes from things we learned in the past that may not apply to the future,” says Starr. “If someone leaves a bad impression, it’s often because they remind you of someone else, which can lead to an unfair judgment.”
“We have a tendency to pull away from things—and people—that feel new,” observes Arnsten. To avoid missing hidden opportunities, including potential friendships, Starr recommends being mindful of when these feelings of doubt creep in. “Just tell yourself, ‘I’m going to suspend my judgment until I learn more.’ Sticking around in these instances will often lead to luckier outcomes and unexpected connections!”
Find Your Confidence
Find Confidence (and Luck) in Comfort
As if you weren’t self-conscious enough about putting on a few pounds: The team T-shirt you’re supposed to wear to the charity bake-off is way too snug. You squeeze into it so you will fit in, but you can’t help feeling awkward. “If you’re uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter if you look like you belong because your body language will say otherwise,” notes Starr. “And the people around you will automatically pick up on that tension.”
Starr suggests dressing (or acting) the way you feel most comfortable. “When you’re relaxed, you project confidence, which is an instant luck-booster.” In fact, a recent study found that folks who don’t follow expected dress codes are perceived as higher-status individuals because they’re seen as confident enough to act independently. Says Arnsten, “As soon as we stop doubting ourselves, we take control and slash stress.”
Stay Curious Beat Anxiety
Banish Fear by Staying Curious
Your best friend wants to open an Etsy store with you, selling the handmade crafts you both love making. Though you’ve always wanted to start a business, you’re afraid of taking the leap, and you tell your pal that you’ll have to pass. Says Starr, “When we let fear dictate our actions, we close the door on the possibilities of good fortune.”
“Being inquisitive is one of the most powerful things you can do to improve your luck and short-circuit fear of the unknown,” says Starr. “Over time, your world gets bigger, so unfamiliar situations seem less threatening.” Fostering such curiosity, she says, is as simple as reading books about unfamiliar topics or taking classes to learn new skills. In fact, in one recent study, folks who proved most curious scored highest on measures of well-being.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.
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