7 Proven Ways to Make Yourself Luckier
Do you avoid walking under ladders, never book a seat in row 13, jump when you see a black cat – yet still can’t seem to get a lucky break? Forget superstition – use these 7 tried-and-tested ways to boost your luck.
1. Cultivate healthy optimism
If you believe you are lucky, you are more likely to be lucky. Research shows that optimists achieve more, have better health, live longer and enjoy better relationships with people. So whilst there are times when it pays to be pessimistic – when the consequences of an action or decision will be severe, for example – a prevailing optimistic attitude is generally preferable for most people. Positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman outlines the differences between an optimistic and a pessimistic viewpoint in terms of scope and timespan1.
Imagine the following scenario:
Clare is invited to speak to a group at a networking event. She does her talk and the group receive it well; they laugh in the right places and clap loudly when she finishes.
She is followed by Richard, who finds it hard to keep the group’s attention, and cuts his talk short early as a result.
If Clare’s an optimist, she’s likely to reflect on her talk with thoughts such as ‘I’m a natural at public speaking, I always get a good reaction from my audience’. Her scope is wide – public-speaking in general – and her timespan is permanent – “I always”.
If, however, she’s pessimistic, she’s likely to tell herself ‘That was a one-off; I was lucky to get that crowd tonight – they were in such high spirits anyone could have made them laugh.’ Her scope is narrow – that particular group of people – and her timespan is temporary – “a one-off”.
If Richard is a pessimist, he’s likely to think ‘I’m terrible at public speaking, I always bore the audience’. Wide scope, permanent timespan.
If he’s an optimist, conversely, he’ll probably shrug off the less-than-great event, thinking ‘It was a tough crowd tonight; I think they were getting hungry for the post-talk refreshments. Next time will be better’. Narrow scope, temporary timespan.
So, optimists tend to view positive past events as universal and permanent, and negative past events as specific and temporary.
Pessimists tend to view positive past events as specific and temporary, and negative past events as universal and permanent.
Now clearly this shouldn’t be taken to extremes. If we are wildly optimistic with no sense of personal responsibility, openness to constructive criticism or appreciation of others’ help, we are living dangerously at worst, and limiting our growth at best. The ideal is to take credit for your own efforts, recognise the efforts of others and if you think it was only good fortune that prevented a negative result, plan how to do even better next time.
2. Connect with people
‘Networking’ is a pretty sterile word to describe connecting. Every time we meet people – online or offline – we’ve an opportunity to connect with them, whether it’s business-related, interest-related or social. We talk about successful people as being ‘connected’ – this means more than just knowing someone’s name or having their business card. Other people are often our greatest source of ‘luck’. A casual conversation you have with someone in the pub could lead you to your dream job. Or a chat with someone on an online business forum could lead you to your dream partner. Don’t imagine that people you meet in one area of your life can’t help in others. If you meet people with an open attitude that you may be able to help them – and them you – you’ll find your luck increases. The key is to build trust and rapport; to take genuine interest in them and be open to possibilities in both directions.
Think of the number of people in your life at this point in time, all with their own networks. The possibilities for connecting with someone who can help you – whether you’re looking for work, information, new friends, a partner – are endless; and they’re exponentially greater in the current age of social networking.
But you have to let people know what it is you need! All it takes is a quick phone call, email or status update to say ‘I’m looking for a job in this area’, or ‘I’m really keen to meet someone who’s up for a bit of jamming’ or whatever. Let people help you – and look for ways to help others with contacts or information.
3. Put in the elbow grease
“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” – Thomas Jefferson
So, you’ve adopted an optimistic frame of mind, and you’ve told people what it is you’re looking for. Time to relax on the sofa and wait for opportunity to arrive with the pizza delivery man? I think not! Put in the effort; it’s your dream. What can you do to make it easier for Lady Luck to find you? What events can you go to, what books can you read, what courses can you take? Maximise your chances with effective effort and do everything you need to be ready, so that when luck does find you, you’re off and running.
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca
4. Be open to new experiences
Try new things, meet new people, get out of your rut. Keep your eyes and ears open for new opportunities – in fact, seek them out – and act on them. If your default answer to suggestions or invitations to try something new is ‘I don’t think I’d enjoy that’ – just pause and think about it. Are you sure you wouldn’t enjoy it? If you are, don’t stop at ‘no’ – think about what you might like to try instead. And don’t think there’s only one path to your chosen goal; if you’re focusing on one particular road, you could miss a shortcut, or a more scenic route, or just a useful/entertaining diversion. (For ideas on how to find new hobbies – or fall in love with ones again – see Week 4 of my free 10 Weeks to Wellbeing series, Hobbies & Learning.)
5. Notice – but don’t rely on – your intuitions
Learn to tell the difference between your gut and your fear. In other words, if you’re trying to make a decision, and you think you’re getting a gut instinct to say no, be sure it is your gut and not just fear of leaving your comfort zone.
But don’t stop there.
Progress in neuroscience has shown we have two separate systems at work in our thinking; “System 1” and “System 2”, as psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls them2. System 1 is faster, automatic, intuitive thought; System 2 is slower, more conscious, deliberate thought. Whilst we think we make our decisions consciously, via System 2, System 1 tends to have more influence – in other words, we tend to make decisions intuitively or emotionally and then rationalise them afterwards.
Kahneman, who won a nobel for this work, says that whilst sometimes you have to trust your intuition (when you are under time pressure to make a decision, for example), you shouldn’t take your intuitions at face value. We can delude ourselves into overconfidence by creating simple, compelling stories about situations which may not actually be valid – we often jump to conclusions based on small amounts of information. If these stories feel good, we feel confident about them and then use that confidence as further “proof”! We can develop a level of ‘expert intuition’ if we’re dealing with a regular environment and have had the opportunity to practice the skill in question (nurses, firefighters and chess players can benefit from this, for example). But as a rule of thumb, whilst our intuitions or hunches can be useful sources of information – particularly when dealing with something we’ve dealt with a lot in the past – we should, where possible, seek to gather more information in order to make our decisions.
6. Play to your strengths
Instead of focusing on the things you’re not necessarily great at, play to your strengths. Quite often we fixate on our weaknesses, and flaws, being overly self-critical and getting stressed or even depressed about our ‘failings’. Positive psychology interventions have shown it’s highly beneficial to focus on using our individual skills and strengths. (See 10 Weeks to Wellbeing: Week 6 – Career for links to strengths assessment tools.) For the areas which aren’t your forte, aim to be ‘good enough’ or bring someone else on board who has the strengths you need. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
7. Turn negatives into positives
Every time you try something and it doesn’t turn out as planned, you learn. Often, people stop trying when they fail at something, feeling defeated and disheartened. But failures are learning opportunities – think of a toddler failing repeatedly to stand up without support – until they succeed. The trick is to apply what you’ve learned, and get better with each attempt. Deal with the disappointment by imagining how it could have been worse, and then focus on what was positive about the experience, and how things could be done better in future. Decide whether to keep trying (J.K. Rowling got knocked back by twelve publishers who told her Harry Potter would never take off, before Bloomsbury accepted her manuscript3), shelve something for a while or change direction entirely – and take comfort in the fact that none of us can see the future and we’re just making the best decisions we can with the information we have. (Can’t resist adding a pearl of subverted wisdom from Phil Dunphy here: “When life gives you lemonade, make lemons. Life’ll be all like… Whaaat?“)
Bonus tip: Keep a gratitude diary
Finally, if you find it difficult to be and stay optimistic, try keeping a gratitude diary, which has been showed to positively affect mental health. Deliberately focusing on what’s going well helps balance the brain’s negativity bias, a survival mechanism present in humans and other animals. Participants in a positive psychology study who were asked to write down three good things that went well each day (and their causes) every night for one week began to show beneficial effects one month later. At the one-month follow-up, participants in this exercise were happier and less depressed than they had been before starting, and they stayed happier and less depressed at three-month and six-month follow-ups4.
So take heart if optimism isn’t coming naturally. It can be learned.
1Seligman, Martin. (1998). Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
2Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.
3The JK Rowling Story. The Scotsman. http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/books/the-jk-rowling-story-1-652114
4Seligman ME, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C. Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. Am Psychol. 2005;60(5):410-21.
[Originally written as an article for the Soul Ambition site in ’07; updated October ’10 and November ’14.]
Image credit: Mikko Luntiala on Flickr. I just noticed that’s a Finnish name – I added this to the original article in ’07, when Finland was ‘just’ the home of Moomins and Nokia to me – now I’m living here!