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Are Optimists Luckier?

Are optimistic people luckier?

First off, I want to be clear what I mean by optimistic.

I am talking about an optimistic attribution style.  I often quote the Nietzsche line, “there are no facts, only interpretations” as a reminder that it is not what happens that causes us to feel a certain way, but how we interpret what happens.

If something positive happens, an optimist is more likely to think that he or she caused it.  If something negative happens, and optimist is more likely to think that it happened by chance.  They attribute positive things to themselves and negative things to chance.  Pessimists are the opposite. They tend to believe that bad things that happen are their fault and that good things are chance.

Being “lucky” pretty much means “having a quality of having good things happen to you.”

But, isn’t that saying that “luck” is an attitude?

Yep.  At least, but not tot totally.  There is an old saying “luck favors the prepared mind,” but your are a lot more likely to find a four leaf clover in a clover patch than a parking lot.

The Four Principles of Luck

Psychologist Richard Wiseman found aspects of both researching luck.   In his book, The Luck Factor, he lists Four Principles of Luck. I am going to list them, with the caveat that Principle Two is almost certainly wrong.

Principle One: Maximise Chance Opportunities - Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, including networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences.

Principle Two: Listening to Lucky Hunches - Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. In addition, they take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities by, for example, meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts.

Principle Three: Expect Good Fortune - Lucky people are certain that the future is going to be full of good fortune. These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way.

Principle Four: Turn Bad Luck to Good - Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, do not dwell on ill fortune, and take control of the situation. – The Luck Factor

Principle One is about what situations you put yourself into to make yourself luckier, looking for four-leaf clovers in clover fields instead of parking lots, and the other three are about how you think about things. I will talk much more about that later. I’ll get back to this and to Principle Two later.

Principle Three

Principle Three seems obvious. If you don’t expect anything good to happen, you won’t be on the lookout for it or notice it when it happens.  I suggest that you keep an eye out for quarters.  You might be surprised how soon you see one.

However, it is not easy for many people. Downside planning is a way some people relieve anxiety.  It is called defensive pessimism.  Planning how to deal with all the things that can go wrong helps them feel better.  They feel like they have more control over their future.  If you are always on the lookout for what can go wrong, it’s hard to notice anything else. If you feel you have control over things, you can see why you would take responsibility when things go wrong.  It is necessary to anticipate all the contingencies.

It is a Catch-22 situation because we can’t anticipate everything that can go wrong. There is an external environment we have no influence over. There can be earthquakes, wars, recessions, ill-health, and all manner of things that can derail our plans.  Helen Keller captured this well,

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable. — Let Us Have Faith 

Principle Four

Which leads to Principle Four.  To put it bluntly, shit happens. Long ago, the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus nailed what we need to do about that.

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

He gets into into what we can’t and can’t control in any detail, but it is pretty obvious that we can break a leg, run into a nasty person, get laid off or the opposite, land a perfect job … In other words, we can be unlucky or we can be lucky …

What Epictetus says is to separate chance from luck.  There are random things that happen and it is up to you to deal with them. How you feel about anything that happens is not a requirement. You interpret what happens and respond to the interpretation.

What’s the difference between someone who can explain in detail to you why they are lucky and someone who is lucky?   It doesn’t make sense to try and convince Elie Wiesel or Helen Keller that, despite of what they think, they had horrible lives.

Principle One

The logical extension of putting a positive spin on everything is that you would just do your duty in your society and be happy and content and, indeed, this is what the Stoics suggest.  I don’t suggest that.

There are things that are out-of-our control, but that we can influence. It is sort of like betting on something that has the best odds of winning.

The most important thing is to put yourself in a place where you can be lucky, looking for four leaf clovers in clover patches.

I can tell you right now, 100% for sure without ever meeting you what will happen in your life that will be lucky for you — you will meet someone.

Every major direction you take in your life will be because of someone you met, usually by chance.  A teacher, a boss, a friend from school, a co-worker, a relative, a mate,  …

Most of what you know came directly or indirectly (through books, movies, TV, etc) from people; even physical skills, music, carpentry, football, only make sense because of their importance and meaning to others.

The key to Principle One, then, is to create diverse relationships because every person knows something no other person does. Research has shown that people with the most diverse relationship are the most innovative, they are promoted the fastest, and they even get fewer colds.  That is something you can learn how to do.

This is going to be the subject of an other article (and it is in my luck workshop to some degree and the main subject of my workshop on social capital).

Principle Two

As far as Principle Two,  there’s an expression in Bulgaria, “If you don’t go to the station, you can’t catch the train.”

Making decisions to avoid regrets won’t work.  People who focus on their families regret not spending more time on their career, people who focus on their career regret not spending more time with their families. The only way not to have regrets is to just decide things are OK.

We make better decisions when we think things through and have more information, but sometimes we have to just go for it.

Of course, an optimist would be sure things were going to turn out fine, anyway.

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