Do We Really ‘Make Our Luck?’ Studies Show It’s Possible
As luck would have it.
You’re grocery shopping, when you line up to pay and realize the man in front of you has half the store in his cart. “Of course, it’s just my luck to pick the longest line,” you think. Whether you’re dealing with a flat tire on the way to work or waiting all day for the plumber — only for him to cancel at the last minute — you’ve long questioned whether serendipity was on your side. But the truth is that you’re much more in charge of your luck than you think.
“We tend to believe luck is passive, something that happens to us — that’s blind luck,” says Christian Busch, PhD, expert in the areas of serendipity and innovation, and author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck. “But the reality is that luck is often dependent on our own actions because we can create serendipity — active luck — by increasing the probabilities of good things happening.” And how we look at the world is a big predictor of how fortunate we are, as optimistic people tend to see opportunities and connect the dots others miss.
Indeed, boosting your luck may start with seeing the world like a kid again, says Busch. “Children are more likely than adults to discover pennies on the ground simply because they’re more open to finding the unexpected.” Serendipity, he says, is about creating meaningful accidents, and making accidents meaningful. Read on for easy ways to pinpoint lucky opportunities guaranteed to boost your bliss and optimism.
Feeling anxious? Pick a charm or talisman.
The problem: It’s the night before your big work presentation, and you can’t sleep. As you toss and turn, you worry about everything from stumbling over your words to how your colleagues will receive your ideas. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says, “When we’re anxious, self-doubt quickly takes over, until everything — even things we’re well-prepared for — seem out of our control.”
The fix: A charm or talisman. “When we believe an object is lucky, we perform better,” says Rubin, citing a study in which golfers who were given “lucky” balls outperformed their peers. That’s because a talisman melts anxiety by giving us something external to focus on. “I have a lapis lazuli cube I hold when I need a boost,” she says, revealing that she recently urged her daughter to hold it before an exam. “Sharing your lucky items is like saying you wish others well, and it triggers ripples of positivity.”
Feeling lonely? Work ‘serendipity hooks’ into conversations.
The problem: After moving to a new city, you’re struggling to meet people. Loneliness not only makes us feel down on our luck, it also stirs feelings of shame, as if there’s something wrong with us. Says Busch, “This pessimism can become a vicious cycle, making us retreat from life and preventing us from seeing the possibilities that lead to happy accidents and surprising bonds with new people.”
The fix: To forge bonds, try Busch’s “hook strategy.” It simply entails sharing three to four unique things about yourself in a conversation to increase the chance of someone finding a commonality. If someone asks what you do, instead of just giving your job title, elaborate that you’re a new grandmother or that you love gardening. “Using ‘serendipity hooks’ gives people more opportunities to spot potential dots they can connect — and luck comes from surprising connections.” Indeed, research shows that honesty and diving into deeper conversations helps us form meaningful connections.
Feeling frustrated? Let yourself daydream.
The problem: While planning a fundraiser for the animal shelter where you volunteer, you’re hitting a wall when it comes to creative ways to encourage more pet adoptions. The more you try, the more frustrated you become. Says Busch, “Putting pressure on yourself often leads to tunnel vision, making it all but impossible to spark the lucky ‘eureka!’ moments that lead to breakthroughs.”
The fix: Daydreaming. Ben Franklin said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” While that’s often true, today’s researchers find that when you’re in a rut, the more relaxed you are, the luckier you get. “Letting your mind wander allows your subconscious to problem-solve beneath the surface,” says Busch. A 2009 study supports this theory: It found that the problem-solving areas of our brains are highly active when we daydream. Whether you unwind with a cup of tea in the morning or take a walk without the distraction of your phone, small moments of serenity will lead to big moments of serendipity.
Feeling regretful? Be open to curiosity.
The problem: When your recently divorced best friend announces that she just met a great guy online, you’re happy for her, but you wonder why you haven’t been so lucky yourself and instantly start regretting missed opportunities and risks not taken. “Regret is backward-looking by nature, closing us off to future possibilities and blinding us to just how much is in our power to control and change,” says Busch. “Good luck springs from focusing on what we can influence in the present, rather than what we cannot in the past.”
The fix: Change regret to curiosity. “Lucky people say, ‘If I can’t change X situation, how can I control my response to it?’” says Busch. Being open to possibility begins with curiosity. To foster this quality, he suggests starting a “serendipity journal.” “Think about the last time something fortuitous happened — what made it surprising or joyful?” For example, you may realize the last time you spoke to a stranger in a café, you made a connection. “Reframe fears that hold you back by asking, ‘What’s the worst that can happen if I try?’” Embracing chance will make you luckier and happier.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.