How Lucky Can You Get?

Looking for luck in all the wrong places? 

Science says good fortune is best found within.

   

Some say good luck is as unpredictable as The Twilight Zone. Witness one Mary Patrick Kavanaugh, an aspiring author whose dreams of landing her first book deal were dashed one fateful night with a single phone call. "It was my agent," Kavanaugh said. "She told me she had tried to sell my manuscript but the publishing business these days was collapsing." Kavanaugh's literary dream was yet another casualty of bad times. The country's current financial crisis had washed her hopes of having a blockbuster bestseller down the economic drain. Of all the bad luck.

But Kavanaugh was about to discover she had more control over her destiny than she knew. That night the young widow did something she often did: she took a stroll in a local Oakland cemetery, one she favored for its soothing greens and scenic views. It was just settling into dusk; the lights from the San Francisco skyline starting to shimmer in the distance. Kavanaugh grieved for her book and all she'd envisioned it to be. That's when the epiphany struck.

"Clouds parted, angels sang," she said, smiling. "I was upset I wouldn't get to have my book launch at the cemetery like I'd planned." The ideal setting, she'd reasoned, for the book she'd named Family Plots: Love, Death and Tax Evasion, based on her former life with her late husband. "But then it occurred to me that my dream had died - and that was even better for having a funeral. If I'd actually sold the book I'd have had less control over the launch party. That's when I realized the perfect publisher was me."

As a result of Kavanaugh's idea to, as she put it, "turn crap into compost," her luck changed. Planning and producing the seriously satirical funeral gave life to a new brainchild: a unique Web site where Kavanaugh invited others to send in and bury their own dead dreams in "Cemetery Mary's" cyber-cemetery. It was a smash. Many "mourners" and the media plugged in and the resulting jolt of publicity was felt all the way in New York City. This time the telephone rang with good news.

"I'd invited the publishers who'd rejected my manuscript to be pallbearers at the funeral but on a hunch I also sent an invitation to a literary agency that had also turned me down," Kavanaugh explained. "I was drawn by the creativity I saw in their Web site."

The phone call was from that same creative agency. The reps were amused by Kavanaugh's grimly funny antics and asked if she'd be interested in writing a "Crap into Compost"-themed book. The dream was alive! And all because of Kavanaugh's gut feelings and positive spin on her predicament. But is that all there was to it?

Psychology experts studying good fortune say Kavanaugh's lucky phone call from the new agent was less cosmic and more caused by her own behavior over which she had total control. The human brain, scientists say, is primed to notice patterns over the course of a lifetime. Hunches or intuition, therefore, are born from memories flashing in our heads signaling: We've seen this before, and consequently, this is a good - or bad - thing. Proceed accordingly.

You go for a job interview, for example. You're prepared and practiced to say the right things, look the productive part. You've anticipated what questions the potential boss or interview panel might ask, but there's no way to know for certain until you're in the hot seat. That's okay, experts say, if you're willing to trust the sixth sense your lifetime of experience has honed for you. Reading the subtle signs of people's body language, their vocal inflections, and your mind's flashes from the past can increase your chance of getting that job by a substantial margin. That's what Kavanaugh experienced when she decided on a seeming whimsy to send one of the "Won't you be my pallbearer?" invites to the agency she had a literary crush on. By sensing the company's creative mindset would respond well to her "fun"eral idea and then acting upon the urge, she had upped her lucky odds.

Kavanaugh isn't the only one to discover the power of positive thinking (props to Norman Vincent Peale) and the often life-changing events that can result from a simple attitude adjustment (props to Jimmy Buffett). Experts agree that with a few modifications to your behavior, you, too, can increase the likelihood of getting the job, the guy, the girl, or realize your own life's dream. Sure, it sounds like the latest spin on the old "when you wish upon a star" thinking, but there's real science to back up these claims. While you can't control the randomness of chance, you can create your own luck.

Ask most people in line at the movies their definition of luck and they'll say it comes and goes like the latest blockbuster, hoped to be fabulous but sometimes a bomb, and about as unpredictable as the Best Picture Oscar during a writers strike. For more than a decade, Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., a professor in public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, England, has made luck his business. During a time when others in the mind field were shying away from the study of such slippery material, Wiseman believed there had to be a constant characteristic among members of the lucky crowd. He set out to discover their secrets and published the results of his studies in his book, The Luck Factor (2003). In it he describes the four principles at play among lucky people: lucky individuals are open to intuition and are able to analyze and tease out the good side of bad times - what Wiseman terms "counterfactual thinking." They expect to be lucky, and they maximize their chance opportunities by having large networks of friends and being relaxed enough to see different ways of achieving their goals.

"Luck is a way of thinking and behaving," Wiseman writes, asserting we have far more control over the serendipity in our lives than we give ourselves credit for. "Only 10 percent of life is truly random," he contends. "The remaining 90 percent is actually defined by the way you think and behave."

To prove his theories were better than your average bumper sticker, Wiseman put them to the test, gathering 400 volunteers from all over the UK who claimed to be especially lucky or unlucky. During one experiment, he asked subjects from both groups to flip through a newspaper. Their mission: count the number of photographs within. Luck was not mentioned, only the task at hand was explained. Of course, Wiseman had a surprise waiting for them on page three: a large, bold-typed message that said, STOP COUNTING. TELL THE EXPERIMENTER YOU'VE SEEN THIS AND WIN 150 POUNDS (about $235). The message was next to a photo so the subjects would have been looking in that area. Most of the self-identified unlucky folks, intent on doing as they were told, missed the message altogether, while the lucky subjects chuckled, raised their hands and reported the ad to the researcher.

"The unlucky people, for the most part, didn't notice," Wiseman said, even though ignoring the all-caps equivalent of SHOUTING on the page seemed illogical. Fascinating.

Another lucky principal Wiseman found was that fortunate folks listened to their inner voice, and intuition. Despite the popular belief in the importance of rational analysis and logic, scientists say gut instinct is a good fact to follow. Take advantage of the massive cache of knowledge that builds up over the years. "We're amazingly good at detecting patterns," Wiseman explained during a 2007 interview. "That's what our brains are set up to do."

In fact, we have far more control over the serendipity in our lives than we give ourselves credit for. Wiseman reports a whopping 80 percent of those who try to gain more good luck in their lives are successful. Got one month? That's all it takes, he says, for most individuals to happily report their luck increases by an average of 40 percent. A few lucky tips:

Increase your social circle to increase your odds. Try to meet new people and stay connected to the people you already know. These days, keeping up with friends old and new is even easier with the emergence of online social networks. Just think, that techo-geek from high school could be the missing link you need to land a job in the computer industry. The key is to keep it real. "Lucky people form deep relationships rather than lots of superficial ones," Wiseman said. "Facebook and the like often encourage shallow relationships and so might not have an impact on luck."

Listen for opportunity to knock. Lucky people, Wiseman notes, wake up in the morning expecting to have a fortune-filled day. It's more than just the classic positive-thinking paradigm. Fortunate folks not only believe they'll be lucky, but their beliefs lead them to behave in ways that produce good results. They try something new, reach out to long-lost friends. You've heard of a good-luck penny? Odds are it's a lucky person who found it on the street and put it in her pocket while an unlucky person just walked by the loot without looking down - or up.

Dare to ditch the routine. Try something new, take a different route, don a new hairdo and reap the rewards. Wiseman explains it this way: "If you always pick apples in the same part of the orchard, you'll soon run out. But if you go into a different part of the orchard, there's plenty of fruit to pick." So have lunch at a different deli or your morning brew at a new coffee shop. The guy in the suit next to you gingerly sipping his large latte might be the one to give you your next lucky break.

Chill. If you're too distracted and worried about tomorrow you'll miss the opportunities of today. Just like the subjects in Wiseman's newspaper experiment, getting too focused on task and routine can cause you to miss the good luck lurking near you - like the bold print ad announcing a prize, or your future spouse across a crowded MySpace page. Relax and be open to the possibilities that await you.

Mary Patrick Kavanaugh used to think her happiness was all bound up with her book publishing dreams, but she learned that putting that dream to eternal rest opened her eyes to all the good that lay beyond. In a classic make-lemonade maneuver, Kavanaugh self-published Family Plots and subsequently signed up to write a second one with her new agent. And to what does she credit her good fortune? "I've learned to ask myself, 'What would I do if I were brave?' And I do it." Lucky girl.

Favorite Quotes:

Writing is telepathy.”
– Stephen King

Serious art is born from serious play.”
– Julia Cameron

Barbara Neal Varma is my favorite author.”
– Mom
 

 

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