Feeling Lucky?

Source: The Goddess Fortuna. Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been musing a lot about luck lately. Is it a real phenomenon? If so, are we all equally affected by it? And, if it exists, what exactly is it? Where does luck, good or bad, come from? Why are some of us seemingly more or less lucky in work, love and life in general than others? What light can contemporary psychology cast on the nature and reality of luck?

One person who has scientifically studied luck is British experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman. According to Dr. Wiseman’s 2004 book The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles, which conducted both interviews and experiments with more than 400 voluntary subjects, what we commonly call “luck” is closely related to how we both think and behave. And, because of that, Wiseman concludes, so-called good luck can actually be learned, if we are willing to apply his “Four Essential Principles”: creating chance opportunities, feeling lucky, thinking lucky, and denying fate or destiny. Sounds simple. Let’s take a deeper look at the wisdom of  Wiseman’s conclusions about luck.

The basic implication of his findings is that we mainly make our own luck. This is almost a cliche. But, as with most cliches, it contains at least some partial, archetypal truth about the nature of luck. If, for example, Wiseman says, we believe ourselves to be unlucky, this tends to turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy. And vice versa. In other words, expecting bad luck begets bad luck and expecting good luck begets good. But how does this seemingly magical trick actually happen? Clearly, believing oneself to be lucky is a more optimistic attitude than considering oneself unlucky, and can lead to taking greater and more frequent risks that can potentially result in greater rewards. Naturally, the converse is also true: more reticence to take chances, always playing it safe, being fearful, may minimize failure, but also limits the possibility of success, i.e., good luck. “Fortune favors the bold,” as the venerable Latin proverb proclaims. So, evidently, according to Dr. Wiseman, luck is largely a function of our fundamental attitude toward ourselves and life, and particularly, in his view, toward the crucial concept of fate. (See my prior post.) Regarding this fourth principle posited by Wiseman, it is true that luck has historically always been closely associated with fate. When I think about luck, I also think of fate. But what exactly is fate?

Fate (which I would differentiate from destiny) we could say, consists of the cards we are dealt in life, the givens or non-negotiables of existence that we do not choose but which rather happen to us, and with which we must nonetheless deal as best we can. The choices and decisions we take toward dealing with fate determines our destiny. Fate, much like luck, can be positive or negative. Some of these fateful “cards” are universal or existential, and others are specifically personal. I think also of life’s inherent randomness, how, as philosopher Martin Heidegger holds, we are randomly “thrown” into the world at birth, into a situation, context and circumstance we did not choose, ask for, nor create. Why, for example, is someone born into the lap of luxury, while another is born into utter poverty? There are, of course, myriad other examples that could be cited, all of which can be correlated with luck, both good and bad. What truly differentiates between the fortunate and unfortunate? Between fate and luck? Is life totally random? Meaningless? Senseless? Or are there mysterious external forces, powers beyond our control and ken, like luck at play? And does it make sound psychological and philosophical sense, as Wiseman suggests, to flat out deny the existential facticity of fate in order to increase one’s luck?

The ancient Greeks, such as Sophocles for instance, with their famously tragic sense of life, felt that the best luck for someone is to never be born into this world. And failing to escape that terrible fate, to be fortunate enough to die young. In other words, being born in the first place was seen as bad luck, and dying prematurely good luck in that one won’t be forced for three-score-and-ten years or more to face and suffer life’s inevitable vicissitudes, absurdities, sorrows and suffering.This is a sentiment sometimes expressed by profoundly depressed patients in psychotherapy: wishing either that they were never born or that their life (and, therefore, suffering) would soon cease. For some, this wish to die is passive (e.g., being run over by a bus or contracting a fatal disease), while for others it is active (e.g., shooting or hanging themselves or jumping off a tall building). In either case, they–and, at times all of us to some extent, consciously or unconsciously–struggle with that profound existential question so succinctly expressed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet: To be or not to be. To choose to continue to live despite life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune [fate]” or to exit stage left from this painful and perplexing existence.

After all, we never asked to be born. But here we are. Like it or not. Now, even if you reject this nihilistic notion, favored also by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that the very fact of being born is bad luck, it begs another question: If coming into this strange and stressful world is not bad luck in and of itself, might someone be born blessed with a future of good luck, while others are born under a “bad sign,” perhaps astrologically speaking, or “jinxed,” “cursed,” “hoodooed” or under the influence of some evil spell? Curiously, twenty-first century psychotherapy patients sometimes express precisely such concerns. Not infrequently, patients report a subjective sense that they are or have been chronically unlucky in life, that the unseen forces of fate are somehow working against them or, in more extreme cases, that the entire cosmos is conspiring against them. They often feel there are forces preventing them from fulfilling their potential and living a happier, more fulfilling and meaningful existence. In some cases, these irrational beliefs can become delusional, e.g., the paranoid person who is convinced that his or her life is being manipulated, controlled or negatively influenced by aliens, demons, the CIA or FBI, the mafia, etc. Certainly we have all had such feelings, fears or thoughts from time to time, especially on particularly bad days when everything goes wrong or during prolonged rough patches in life. Indeed, human beings seem to have a natural tendency to seek to explain or blame something for misfortune. A “will to meaning,” as existential analyst Viktor Frankl asserts. Such feelings, beliefs, cognitions or superstitions can be traced back to humanity’s earliest days. But is there any objective validity to them? Or is it all in our imagination? Merely a matter of magical, primitive, “irrational” thinking? 

From time immemorial, primitive people attributed misfortune or troubles to the numinous powers of nature and various spirits. In early Egyptian culture, evil spirits or demons acted as malign supernatural influences in human life. For the early Greeks, this condition would have been attributed to the often arbitrary and sometimes cruel will of the Olympic gods. During the days of Jesus of Nazareth, invading demons were believed to be the cause of many maladies and difficulties. Medieval folk blamed the devil and his minions for causing all sorts of mischief, mishaps and suffering. During the Inquisition, millions of women believed to be witches responsible for all manner of alleged evil deeds such as casting spells and causing diseases, were grotesquely tortured and killed. Up until the seventeenth century, and still in certain circles today, debilitating and disturbing symptoms of mental illness were believed to be caused by demonic possession (see my prior post), and bad luck, misfortune or tragedy to be the work of the devil and his helpers.

Starting in the early twentieth century, the new and revolutionary “depth psychology” of Freud and C.G. Jung proposed that such troubling and unfortunate states of mind resulted from being destructively “possessed” by some unconscious “complex” or inner “demon,” such as the “shadow.” (See my prior post.) During the subsequent behavioral and then cognitive revolutions in psychology during the latter half of the twentieth century, our problems stemmed, we were told, from how we think about and interpret things that happen to us, and as a result of our own actions. Today, in the era of biological psychiatry and psychopharmacology, we tend to want to blame our bad moods, failures and troubles on faulty neurotransmitters. Each of these religious, philosophical or scientific theories seek, at bottom, to explain the perennial problem of evil–of bad luck, distress, suffering, disease, sorrow, tragedy, and catastrophe–one of the inescapable existential facts of life.

For post-Freudian and Jungian existential psychology and psychotherapy, luck is a fascinating yet philosophically problematical phenomenon. Existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, insist that we human beings are the sole creators of our selves and our lives, and must bear full responsibility for what we make of life. In this sense, Sartre would seem to support Wiseman’s contention that we make our own luck by dint of our personal  decisions and actions. As Sartre puts it, “We are our choices.” Where then does luck or fate come in? If luck is part of human (animal, and other) existence, how can we possibly be responsible for it? Why, for example, does one dog or cat live out its life in a lovely, stable and loving home, while others, through no fault of their own, know nothing but neglect, abuse, suffering and premature death?  Why is one person born into a loving, stable and supportive family, while another receives only rejection and hostility? Indeed, depending on to what degree we attribute what happens to us to luck, bad or good, we may not feel responsible at all for our lives, perceiving  ourselves as powerless, helpless victims of life. Thus, excessive belief in luck or fate can serve as a way of avoiding responsibility for what happens to us and what we ultimately choose to do with our lives.

Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “attribution theory”: we try to understand and explain life experiences by making either an internal or external attribution of its cause, resulting in “attributional bias.” That is to say, we either blame ourselves for our misfortunes (e.g., our genes, biochemistry or bad habits) or we blame something other than ourselves (our parents, teachers, women, men, Christians, Jews, Muslims, society, demons, God or the Devil). Or we blame “bad luck.” But it is essential to note that when we blame or attribute things to fate or luck, we are simultaneously automatically distinguishing between good and bad luck. We are judging, deciding, interpreting and defining what kind of luck is “good” and what is “bad.” In reality, however, as most of us have experienced, what we initially view as bad luck can, in hindsight, sometimes turn out to have been helpful, fortunate and beneficial; whereas what we consider in the moment to be a stroke of good luck may later prove to be problematical or even disastrous. So the concept of luck, in general, is, in part, a psychological system for attributing goodness or badness to events that befall us beyond our volition.

But what, I wonder, difficult as it may be, if we were to choose not to make such a valuation to begin with, if luck was not automatically conceived of as being either bad nor good? Would we still then have any need to speak of luck? Or would we simply willingly accept whatever happens as our fate, without judgment, not as being lucky or unlucky, but just as what is? Without explanation or attribution. This philosophical question recalls Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati: willingly loving one’s fate. It also brings to mind that traditional blues tune “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and especially the enigmatic line, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” And it is reminiscent of Otto Rank’s paradoxical recommendation to, at certain times, voluntarily choose to accept fate as “the willing affirmation of the must,” in an effort to prevent feeling totally victimized and disempowered by fate.

So much of life is clearly beyond our control, which is one of the fundamental definitions of luck. Luck is what happens to us, for better or worse. Much as we might like to think that we can control luck, we cannot, though there may, as Wiseman suggests, be methods to maximize it. We can create the inner and outer circumstances to coax and potentiate luck. But, ultimately, the concept of luck falls into the category of poet W.H. Auden’s pithy observation:  “We are lived by Powers we pretend to understand.” Luck is a force or power that transcends rationality. Luck, traditionally symbolized by the Greek goddess Fortuna, is something that describes those aspects of life we do not and cannot control, but are profoundly influenced by nonetheless. “Lady Luck,” another archetypal image embodying luck, may be with us or against us at different times in our lives. And we can be lucky in one aspect of life, such as in love, for example, and unlucky in another, such as business. So how responsible really are we for making our own luck in life? To insist that individuals are responsible for creating their own good or bad luck, though certainly true to some extent, can be a primal defense mechanism against acknowledging life’s inherent randomness and unfairness. Many postmodern people deny the daily influence of luck in our lives. It is far more anxiety provoking to exist in a universe in which we are capriciously subject to anything happening any time with no rhyme or reason, frequently unfairly and undeservedly, than to delude ourselves that we are the masters of our own destiny and sole creators of our own luck. Of course, for some, when good fortune shines upon them, they are the first to take credit; but when bad luck occurs, they are quick to call it that rather than taking full responsibility for their failure.

Note the above-mentioned curious archetypal association between luck and the female figures of Fortuna (Tyche in Greek mythology) and Lady Luck. Speaking of the Roman goddess Fortuna, Machiavelli tells us: “Fortune may be the arbiter of one half of our actions, but she still leaves us the other half, or perhaps a little less, to our free will.” In some cultures, eggs are considered a symbol of good luck. In others, ladybugs or felines. From a Jungian perspective, luck can be considered, in some measure, to be the synchronistic product of our relationship with the so-called “feminine” side of life: with creativity, emotionality, irrationality, intuition. For example, someone who is intimately in tune with their intuition and willing to trust and act upon it, may be perceived as being lucky; whereas someone who is detached from this feminine aspect of themselves may be beset by seemingly senseless bad breaks. On closer inspection, such mishaps may be trying to tell us that there is indeed an irrational, fortuitous side of life which must be acknowledged, respected, valued and responded to. When we refuse to acknowledge life’s inherent irrationality, the power of the feminine principle or the phenomenon of the “unconscious” in general, it manifests itself as bad luck, a sort of subtle self-sabotage–but one which forces us to face the limitations of ego and rationality, and to choose to alter and expand our attitude toward existence and the psyche.

Then there is the familiar and uncanny phenomenon of being at the “wrong place at the wrong time” or “right place at the right time.” The collective wisdom that “timing is everything” in life is all about luck and our relationship to it. So we tend to closely associate luck with timing, both good and bad. Consider, for instance, those poor ill-fated souls attending a country music concert in Las Vegas last year when evil mass murderer Stephen Paddock started shooting from his hotel window. And then there were some intended victims of these shootings that survived unscathed while others around them died. Was their luck better than that of those who were killed? Clearly. But why? And what does that really mean? Was it merely a matter of random chance? Happenstance? Or were there other unseen yet influential forces at work that somehow kept them from being harmed? Do some people have what seem to be “guardian angels” protecting them from harm, as did George Bailey in the 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life? Or perhaps, as others believe, God him or herself? If so, what of the not so lucky victims of such evil deeds? Where was their metaphysical spiritual protector or benefactor that fateful night? Did they deserve to die while others did not? And what if they had decided against going to the concert that night rather than attending? Does that make them partly responsible for having chosen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and, therefore, for their own demise? Or were they, like everyone else there, just hapless victims of atrocious acts and circumstances created not by themselves, but by the crazed killer alone?

Such questions always arise when tragedies occur, be they man-made or natural, because we want desperately to make sense of senseless violence and evil. Meaning of meaninglessness. This basic existential and spiritual query is taken up,  in rabbi Harold Kushner’s bestselling 1983 book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (See also my prior posts on the trauma of evil.) We could equally wonder why good things happen to bad people, since good luck does not always favor the good. (Serial killers, for instance, can avoid detection for years or even a lifetime in certain cases, because, though they may be smart, they are also lucky.) And how a supposed loving and beneficent God could allow decent folk to suffer unspeakable suffering and misfortune, as in the biblical Book of Job. These mysteries are traditionally the territory of philosophers and theologians, but present themselves routinely to the mental health professional.

Psychologically speaking, there is no question that what we call luck can be the indirect consequence of choices we have made at some time, recent or remote. Of how we think about things. How we behave. Of our neurobiology. Neuroses. Past traumatic experiences. Or due to a lack of courage and fortitude. For example, the person who chooses not to complete high school in his or her teens, may blame bad luck for not being able to find good paying jobs decades later and facing chronic unemployment. Or having chosen to divorce their spouse rather than work through conflicts, find themselves alone and isolated during the holidays, blaming their condition on bad luck in love. This same person may suffer from some form of what Freud called “repetition compulsion” in regards to choosing prospective partners, perhaps unconsciously selecting ones that are emotionally or physically rejecting or unavailable to him or her. (See my prior post.) Is it bad luck? Or an unconscious complex at work? 

Indeed, from the standpoint of Jung’s analytical psychology, seemingly senseless or arbitrary negative responses from others or the world, and even certain untoward environmental events, can sometimes be traced back to a stubborn yet stealthy and subtle “synchronistic” psychological state of mind, in which our conscious attitudes, choices, perceptions, emotions and actions are latently and detrimentally influenced, and hence driven and determined, by powerful, relatively autononomous unconscious forces called complexes. In this regard, we are virtually victimized by the unconscious. We feel victimized by what we take to be fate because we are unaware of and reject our responsibility for unconsciously causing, creating or at least contributing to it. For example, people who believe themselves to be inherently unlovable may have what feels to them like repeated bad luck in relationships in large part because they unconsciously reject or sabotage love when it is offered. Thus, in this sense, they can conveniently attribute such aborted relationships to “bad luck” or “fate” rather than to their own neurosis. And, as Wiseman suggests, seeing oneself as being inherently luck or unlucky can have consequences in the world and affect one’s luck.

Jung, who, based on his own experiences (see my prior post), recognized, accepted and valued the irrational or shadow side of life, was fond of telling the following classic story of the Rainmaker:

A tiny village in China was suffering from the most severe drought anyone there could ever recall. There had not been a drop of rain for many months, maybe years. The crops were dying. There was little food left. The water supply was running dangerously low. Dust flew everywhere, making it difficult for residents to breath. Death and desiccation hung in the air. All manner of traditional rituals, ceremonies and prayers were engaged in by the villagers in hopes of driving away any evil demons or negative spirits that might be responsible for bringing this misfortune upon them. But, despite the best efforts or their spiritual leaders, no rain came. Desperate, the village elder decided to send for professional assistance from a far away province: a renowned rainmaker. Upon arriving, the old, wizened man requested something very strange: He asked the villagers to construct a small straw hut just outside the village itself, to bring him enough food and water to last for five days, and to then leave him there alone, solitary, absolutely undisturbed. Not sure what to think but willing to try anything, the villagers did exactly as he said, and anxiously waited for rain. Nothing happened. Three days passed uneventfully. The villagers lost all hope. But then, on the fourth day, dark clouds appeared in the sky. And soon it started to rain. And rain. And rain. A veritable deluge. Ecstatic, grateful, yet totally mystified, the relieved villagers gathered round the old rainmaker wanting to know how he had done it. He humbly explained: ” I am not responsible for making the rain. When I first arrived in your village, it felt discordant, disharmonious, unbalanced, disturbed. And I felt out of sorts with myself. So all I did was take time to get back in alignment with myself, into attunement with the Tao. Nature did the rest.”

And, as a result, the spell of bad luck, the seemingly never-ending drought, was broken. Here the startling implication is that our luck is integrally linked to nature, and that good or bad luck (like experiencing a drought or tornado or flood) may be connected to our relationship to nature (Tao), or lack thereof. To our state of mind. What is happening internally is mirrored externally. Just as the outer environment affects the inner equilibrium, so does the inner psychological environment influence the outer world. We are inextricably and organically linked to and inescapably part of our surroundings, and vice versa.

In the final analysis, we are responsible for some of our luck, both good and bad, and not responsible for some of it. We all are subject to both good and bad luck. As both the professional gambler and surfer knows, luck, metaphorically, comes in waves, and then disappears or turns into its opposite. The trick is to know how to productively ride the wave of luck, to surf it successfully before it peters out. And to walk away from, steer clear from or roll with the dangerous streaks or currents of bad luck without being fatally done in by them–while all the while patiently waiting for the next wave of good luck to arrive at some point. There are times in life when we are more lucky than not, and others when we may be mainly unlucky. Such unwelcome periods of bad luck can be brief, but sometimes prolonged, lasting for years or even decades, and can be likened to times of seemingly endless famine or drought, or other natural disasters over which we have no control and for which we cannot be held fully responsible. (Consider the widespread superstition that breaking a mirror brings seven years bad luck. Not seven days or seven months. But seven years!) This cyclicity is the basic nature of luck.

What we are responsible for is how we choose to deal with such cyclicity and occasional sustained times of tribulation. And, in the apparent absence of luck, for faithfully preparing ourselves, psychologically, spiritually, philosophically and physiologically, for luck’s eventual arrival or return. This inner and outer “psychological readiness” can make all the difference between having good luck or bad, though we may not be aware of our often subtle role in determining that. Like the Rainmaker, even, or perhaps especially, in the absence of luck, we can prepare ourselves to opportunistically take advantage of Lady Luck or Fortuna’s sometimes infrequent and fleeting visitations by becoming ready to to do so–ready to responsively act when opportunity knocks without hesitation or equivocation. For example, for the lonely person, ready to ask the next attractive woman out on a date, or to respond positively to being asked. Without such inner preparation and readiness, we may fail to recognize or respond to this pregnant, transitory yet fateful moment of kairos, permitting luck to uneventfully and unfortunately pass us by, leaving us feeling more unlucky than lucky.

So, yes, as Dr. Wiseman concludes in his study, we do “make our own luck,” in the sense that whether the fates are acting for or against us, whether fortunate or unfortunate, we ultimately determine our destiny by how we encounter and react to our fate. But, I submit, we do so not by denying the power and reality of fate, as Wiseman counsels, but rather by respectfully acknowledging it. Luck can be thought of as an existential potentiality presented to us by life, for good or evil. Like the tale of the Rainmaker, the secret is to be patient, watchful, self-attuned and psychologically prepared to recognize that potentiality when and if it presents itself, and then to be able and willing to authentically respond or act in that moment. Knowing when to wait, introspectively listen, feel, reflect, and when to courageously act is, of course, key. There is a time for a passive, “feminine” approach toward fate, and a time to boldly and aggressively act to alter it. Thus luck can be thought of as a process of passivity punctuated by self-assertion when called for. Certainly we do possess the limited power and freedom to make something happen or prevent it from happening. To actively and willfully intervene in fate when necessary. To challenge the gods, as Prometheus and other Greek heroes did. But, as the poet T.S. Eliot tells us in his Four Quartets, sometimes all we can really do is wait patiently and faithfully for our luck to change:

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;

Wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing;

There is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.



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