Does Luck Exist?




For centuries, luck has been understudied. How could you study it? But pop-psych is breezing past the hesitant academics, giving us Five, Eight, Ten, even Twelve “time-tested,” “easy” “ways to increase your luck.” I send a few links to my curmudgeonly husband. You know, positive attitude, chin up, all that. He glares and informs me that he is not a lucky person, has never been a lucky person. So I pull out Cormac McCarthy: ““You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”

We are playing at the edges of our marriage’s oldest argument. Andrew maintains that some of us walk around with a cloud over our heads, and I counter that thinking makes it so. Round and round we go. He will list off some friend’s series of catastrophes; I will get judgey and rationalize them post hoc, doggedly imposing cause and effect, sure that somehow these people could have avoided at least some of their distress.

He has worn me down, though—or life has. My arguments grow thin and tired. Yes, I still think that deciding ahead of time that you are doomed makes calamities a bit more likely. But who can deny the randomness of fate or the predeterminants of “luck” (genetics, inherited wealth, being born in the right place at the right time)? When we play board games and I watch Andrew roll the dice, his rolls are, time and again, so bad they defy all odds. Are the tendons in his wrist snapping tight with foreboding? Or must I admit that something else might obtain, something beyond our control? That maybe what I see as my own hard work has been laced with a little pixie dust, and maybe he—smarter than I, yet graced by fewer opportunities—is hapless. Literally, lacking in luck.

Does it matter? For our moods, it does. I bounce along, eager for the next surprise. He takes slow, heavy steps, waiting for the storm cloud above him to open. By marrying, we have softened each other’s stances, with me growing more wary and empathetic and Andrew making a concerted effort when I beg him to savor anything good that comes along. But he will never have what British economist Christian Busch calls “the serendipity mindset”: the capacity to turn the unexpected to one’s advantage.

Like intuition, this is a skill that masquerades as magic—but requires unconscious vigilance. Instead of dreading what might happen, the serendipitous stay limber and pounce on the unexpected, connecting it to other ideas and opportunities. Because they are not thrown off course by unanticipated challenges, they have enough energy left to be tenacious in the follow-through.

Busch’s book interests me, because I have been collecting my own examples. One is Simone de Beauvoir, who would have rolled her eyes at his can-do businessspeak—yet lived it. Often she woke amazed that she even existed, musing that “a thousand different futures might have stemmed from every single movement of my past: I might have fallen ill and broken off my studies; I might not have met Sartre; anything at all might have happened.” She knew she had been “tossed into the world…subjected to its laws and its contingencies, ruled by wills other than my own, by circumstance and by history.” Yet she spent no time imagining alternatives: “What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.”

A Frenchwoman born 787 years after Marcus Aurelius, de Beauvoir was every bit as stoic as the Roman philosopher. He, too, refused to grumble about rotten luck; if he remained unbruised, he called whatever had beset him good luck, because it had not distressed him. His nature had triumphed over his fate.

Such approaches please my childish heart, because they suggest that life is not so nasty and brutish after all. Luck, which by definition lies outside our control, might be controllable simply by interpretation. I let my eyes linger on the quotes, draw in their stubborn joy. And then I come back to my senses. All one need do is watch the evening news to know that life can be pure shit, that innocence and joy save no one, and that injustice threads through every system, spiking holes as it goes.

Serendipity is indeed a lovely phenomenon, especially for the bubbly people Malcolm Gladwell calls connectors, and for the researchers who work as magpies, gathering bits of shiny data and piecing it together. But serendipity does not change whatever trends favor certain people at a given time. It does not hand you a new temperament or a new family or a new past or a new future. My husband remains a White male trained in public history at a time when public sites go unfunded and no more White males are needed.

This country’s thinking on luck has always been confused. When Mark Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University, conducted interviews about randomness, luck, and the American dream, he figured the wealthy would claim more credit for their accomplishments (they do), but those with fewer resources would blame bad luck (they do not). “You would think folks who aren’t doing well would say, ‘There was a lot against me,’” Rank observes, “but instead they say, ‘I just need to work harder.’”

Maybe being vulnerable to forces outside your control makes you humble enough to be grateful whenever you catch a break? “Then, it’s not simply that you are floating on the wind,” Rank explains. “You do have some agency, at least in how you react.”

In the end, Andrew and I are both right: some lives are like traffic pile-ups, and some events slam you right off the road—but luck can also be a mind game. “It turns out that there is a simple variance in personality that determines one’s perspective on luck,” notes philosopher Steven Hales. Squinting at the same reality, optimists see good luck and pessimists see bad. The superstitious submit to luck, clutching charms and talismans, while their opposites give luck the weight of fate and give up. But the luck they are all obsessed with is an illusion.

In his latest book, The Myth of Luck, Hales recounts a study indicating that one’s sense of luckiness is not even limited to oneself. Shown examples of ambiguous luck, optimists are likelier to see the various characters as lucky, saluting their resilience. Pessimists, for whom misery weighs heavier, are likelier to see other people suffering bad luck.

How a choice is framed also matters, Hales says. This, I know. If I think we should buy a new appliance or invest in a particular stock, I broach it as the safer choice for the long term. What Andrew ought to do, if he were equally manipulative, is broach his ideas to me as an adventurous choice, a chance to explore or try something new.

Does this mean that being risk-averse coincides with feeling unlucky, and vice versa? Attitudes toward unexpected change often run parallel when you are assessing risk or luck. Again, that locates luck squarely inside temperament. Are some of us lucky because we feel lucky? Would our “luck” change if we began to dwell on all we have missed, been prevented from doing, been cheated of by life’s vagaries? Does it increase because we give it more chances?

Human beings’ differing assessments of the same events “raise the serious possibility,” Hales writes, “that ‘luck’ is no more than a subjective point of view taken on certain events.” Objectively, it does not exist. We think it into being, conjure its rosy glow or gray pall and allow it to alter our conclusions about reality.

We might do better to ignore the construct altogether.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.