Can you actually grow luckier?

Last Updated 24 January 2018, 18:01 IST

You cracked the CAT fairly easily. You also felt you did quite well on the interviews but for some reason you didn't make it into any top rung management institute. Bad luck, you console yourself. You spend the next year preparing for the UPSC as you now aspire to join the civil services. This time, you miss the cut-off mark by one point. Just one point! You're dejected again. Friends and family try to cheer you up by saying you'll have better luck next time. Even though you are sceptical by now, you try your hand at applying to foreign universities. Your GRE scores and college grades are impressive, and the consultant assures you that you stand a 'good chance'. To your utter dismay, seven universities send polite refusals.

In contrast, your best friend who has a more easygoing attitude, doesn't bother attempting the CAT. As he is unsure about what to do next, he decides to volunteer with an NGO that educates street children for at least a year while dabbling in other pursuits like trekking and sculpture on weekends.  When he sees you assiduously applying to universities abroad, he shoots of an application to two colleges. When he gets accepted to both programmes, you simply can't help envy his good fortune.

The chance factor doesn't seem to work in your favour. What can you do if Lady Luck repeatedly singles you out for rejections and disappointments while she smiles down upon your friend who doesn't seem to sweat it out like you? Well, according to Professor Richard Wiseman, luck isn't as chancy as we tend to believe. In fact, he has been researching what differentiates the lucky from the less fortunate.

Noticing chance opportunities

For The Luck Project, which he describes in an article published in the Skeptical Inquirer, he recruited 400 participants who felt they were 'exceptionally lucky or unlucky'. His volunteers ranged from 18 to 84 years and represented an array of professions. In addition to interviews and reading diary entries, he also gave them personality and intelligence tests, and
conducted experiments on them.

He writes, "The findings have revealed that luck is not a magical ability or the result of random chance." Rather, he found systemic principles that differentiate the fortunate from their star-crossed peers. The first is that 'lucky' people are more attuned to "noticing chance opportunities" that other people may miss.

In one experiment, he gave people, who had identified themselves as either lucky or unlucky, newspapers and asked them to count the number of photographs inside. While the unlucky group took an average of about two minutes to complete this exercise, the lucky ones finished it in a few seconds. Were they more adept at counting? Turns out that the lucky group noticed a message that was printed in prominent font on the second page, which said, "Stop counting - there are 43 photographs in this newspaper." The unlucky group was so focused on counting that they failed to see information that would have aided them on the task.

Wiseman also found that lucky people were generally more relaxed and open to experience, and, as a result, spotted more opportunities. The unlucky group were more anxious and narrowly focused on a particular goal that they missed what was out there, often in plain sight. Furthermore, many of the lucky ones also tried to inject variety into their lives, thereby
increasing their chances of coming across unexpected windfalls.

Adding a new dimension

Another difference that separated the two groups was how they responded to misfortune in their lives. When presented with an imaginary scenario of being shot in the arm during a bank robbery, unlucky people interpreted this as proof of their bad luck. In contrast, the lucky ones were thankful that they were not shot in the head. By thinking of how things could actually be worse, the lucky ones were more resilient to life's challenges.  

Interestingly, Wiseman also found that unlucky people don't have to despair that they don't have the personality traits that lucky people are endowed with. By recruiting unlucky people and putting them through a training programme, Wiseman found that this group could increase not only their luck but their happiness as well. The training focused on how people could create chance opportunities by trying out novel experiences and adding a new dimension to well-established routines.

His results were quite dramatic. Eighty percent of the unlucky group were better off after the intervention in terms of their happiness and yes, luck. As Wiseman sagely puts it, "Much of the good and bad fortune we encounter is a result of our thoughts and behaviour." Good luck adopting a more 'lucky' mindset!

(The author
is director, PRAYATNA, Bengaluru)

(Published 24 January 2018, 10:42 IST)

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