04/09/2009 12:09 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Feeling Lucky?

Recently, I came across a very interesting article in Newsweek magazine. The article explored this question: Why do some people survive accidents and natural disasters while others do not? In an economic environment that presents challenges for which many of us have no reference, this question is very pertinent. Are survivors simply lucky, while others are somehow left out? The Newsweek article explored the concept of luck through a book titled "The Luck Factor", written by psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman identifies four "essential principles" that most people who experience luck have in common.
The first principle is that lucky people maximize chance opportunities. People who survive - and even thrive - in adversity increase their chance to be lucky by creating a large network of relationships, because the more people one knows, the better the chances of "stumbling" on to a lucky event. Wiseman also discovered that lucky people have a calm alertness, which allows them to see possibilities which others - who may have a narrow, single-minded focus - miss. Wiseman conducted a very illuminating experiment that revealed this quality. He interviewed two individuals: one who considers himself lucky, and one who considers himself very unlucky. He told these two volunteers that he would interview them in a coffee shop, and arranged individual times to meet them there. In reality, the coffee shop itself was the experiment. Wiseman placed a five dollar bill on the step leading up to the coffee shop, and arranged to have the shop filled with customers, except for one table, where he placed a wealthy businessman. First, the "unlucky" person approached the coffee shop. He was so focused on the interview, and so apprehensive about his performance, though, that he missed seeing the five dollar bill. He then sat next to the businessman and, without saying a word, waited nervously for the interview. Soon Wiseman arrived, and asked him,
"So, how was your morning".
"Oh, nothing special" he replied. "Same as usual..."
The "lucky" man later approached the shop. He spotted the bill, put in his pocket, sat down next to the businessmen, began a conversation, and exchanged business cards. Wiseman arrived and asked this man the same question.
"I had a great morning", he answered. "I found a five-spot on the step and met a promising new business acquaintance. Lucky as usual!"
The point is clear: same situation, but different attitudes lead to different results, and different "luck".
Wiseman's second principal is that lucky people listen to their intuition. They trust their gut feelings, and act on them, in combination with analysis of the facts. These people also take steps to boost their intuition, and Wiseman discovered that the majority of those who consider themselves lucky meditate on a regular basis.
The third principle notes that lucky people expect good fortune. They assume that their good luck will continue, and that their interactions with others will turn out well. Consequently, lucky people tend to believe that they can achieve their goals, so they persevere, even when others would give up. Unlucky people tend to pessimistically believe and do the opposite.
The fourth principle is, for me, the most profound and revealing: Lucky people turn bad luck in to good luck. They see the positive in even seemingly bad situations, and do not dwell in negativity. Wiseman conducted a study in which he asked people to rate, on a scale of -3 (very unlucky) to +3 (very lucky), the following scenario: You are standing in line at a bank, when suddenly a gunman burst in and fires a shot that hits you in the arm. Unlucky people rated this as a -3; "That's a terrible situation!" they say. "Here I am, minding my own business, when I get shot in the arm. Just my bad luck!" Lucky people rate this as a +3. "I was very lucky", they say. "I could have been shot in the head, or my spouse could have been shot, or a child could have been killed."
Luck, then, is a perspective; an inclination. In this light, there is no "luck", just our choices about how we respond to the events of our lives. We can put the worst spin on these events, looking at the negative and bemoaning our fate, or we can choose to see with the eyes of gratitude for the good things that we do have, with the recognition that things could be much worse, and that others suffer more than we do.
Wiseman suggests that we keep a "Luck Diary"; that we write down all the lucky things that happen to us. This is very similar to the spiritual practice of listing our blessings. Jewish tradition asks that we count 100 blessings each day. In this context, blessings are not only our extraordinary good fortune. We can find a blessing in waking up, in having a body that works, a bed to sleep on, a house to live in, food in the refrigerator, clothing to wear, a car/train to get to work, friends, family, the sun, trees, a planet to live on... This is a powerful practice (and one that I much too often overlook), that enables us to see the abundance of good luck that we may usually take for granted.
When we consciously see the abundance of blessing in our lives we begin to see that there is a Divine intentionality that is ultimately beneficent. We may or may not believe that this is true; this is a matter of faith. Certainly, terrible things do happen to innocent people, for which we can not readily see any positive outcome or intent, and chance, often unwelcome, event do happen to us. That is a fact. Yet we can choose how we interpret these events and how we respond; whether we are victims or are active partners in our lives. Our attitudes can become self-fulfilling, because when we expect the best - when we assume that things will work out, and that we can solve the inevitable challenges that arise - we are motivated to work to achieve positive goals. And visa versa. From this perspective, our struggles are inevitable bumps in the road. And, perhaps, these bumps are exactly what are needed to get our attention, keep us from falling asleep at the wheel, teach us how to become better drivers, and make the ride more interesting.