I end up in Las Vegas twice a year. My father moved there about a decade ago; since moving to Los Angeles in 2011, I’ve enjoyed the fact that he is only a four-hour drive away. Most of my trips do not include The Strip—being coated in cigarette smoke is reason enough to avoid casinos.
This past weekend, however, my friend and I decided to rent a room for a weekend of Cirque du Soleil, golf, and, for him, craps. While I’ve never been a gambler watching him play this social game while learning the rules for myself provided plenty of enjoyment. Since I was not emotionally or monetarily invested, I especially appreciated the rituals occurring around the table: tapping the dice twice before rolling, turning each one to a specific number before throwing, yelling “Yo!” when betting on eleven, as if to invoke a number through a loud prayer.
Humans are superstitious creatures. Our rituals are vast. We tie one shoelace before the other; if we tie one, we have to tie the other even if it’s not loose. We avoid sidewalk cracks, put on pants this leg then that. In baseball, hitters have more superstitions than fielders. While the ways we express our hopeful and ambitious clout over the world of objects is impressive, it does serious disservice to an important phenomenon: luck.
Luck is the ever-present elephant in the room, dwarfed in our vocabulary by destiny and blessings. Recognizing your luck is to roll the dice knowing any configuration could appear. Don’t misinterpret: strategy in craps is essential, just as in any game. But a roll of seven has more to do with the flick of a wrist than fate.
Considering yourself lucky is a good thing. Rather than having a negative worldview—“that’s just my luck”—thinking yourself to be lucky results in positive brain functioning and overall well-being. Chelsea Wald writes in Nautilus that luck is a form of magical thinking that produces positive results:
A belief in luck can lead to a virtuous cycle of thought and action. Belief in good luck goes hand in hand with feelings of control, optimism, and low anxiety. If you believe you’re lucky and show up for a date feeling confident, relaxed, and positive, you’ll be more attractive to your date.
Luck also leads you to work harder, plan better, and leave more room for the unexpected to occur. In contrast, those who believe themselves to be unlucky are poorer planners, surrender to challenges more easily, and exhibit lower executive functioning. One 2015 study measured higher levels of electrical energy in lower executive function in students who believed themselves unlucky.
Relying on luck is another story as there is too much of a good thing. The reason I abstain from gambling is due to watching a close friend in college who did. He fell behind—tens of thousands of dollars behind—because every week he believed his luck would change, what is known as “gambler’s fallacy.” He relied on five other college guys on a basketball court to change his luck, which, of course, never happened.
There is another way luck helps us deal with our emotions. If things are going well—we get a new job or fall in love—we reconstruct our historical narrative to make it seem as if all events purposefully led to this moment, or some form of intervention brought us “where we’re supposed to go.” Obviously there is nowhere any human is “supposed” to go. We make decisions and proceed. It’s only in hindsight that things seem to have happened “for a reason.”
Economics professor Robert Frank is alive thanks to sheer luck. There is a reason for it, but he seeks no divine intervention—his blessing is thanks to the doctors and emergency technicians on call. When he experienced sudden cardiac death (2 percent of victims survive this ghastly biological phenomenon) an ambulance just happened to be nearby on a less serious call. A series of fortunate events placed him back on the court in just two weeks.
He knows he was lucky, yet he advises to never tell anyone that truth. As an example he cites two speeches by Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, in which both essentially claimed success is interdependent; we need others to survive and thrive. That’s not how many Americans heard it. Most know the content of these speeches, which became derisively known as the “you didn’t build that” moments—a biased translation, though telling in terms of how we feel about our own luck.
The reaction was overwhelmingly hostile to the speeches. The people who run businesses seemed to think that Obama and Elizabeth Warren were saying that they didn’t deserve to have succeeded, that they were impostors by occupying these lofty positions that they had won. That wasn’t the message at all, but it was hard for people to hear the totally reasonable and uncontroversial messages of those speeches.
People don’t like being told they’re lucky. They believe hard work resulted in success, never mind the numerous others who had the same educational and financial opportunities they did. They also don’t factor in the many who did not have any such opportunities though they worked equally hard. A worker in America simply has more luck being born here than in Somalia. This isn’t conjecture; data back it up.
To navigate this tricky terrain, Frank suggests asking someone about their luck rather than informing them of their luck. Free to ponder what could have fallen into place, people light up reflecting over the narrative they’re constructed. So long as you’re not shaping their narrative, they’ll gladly accept the unpredictable whims of fate that led to their current moment.
As should we all. Luck is not a mystical ally. As Chelsea Wald writes, it’s probably best to consider it a “subjective interpretation.” To highlight this she discusses a group of Norwegian tourists who chose Southeast Asia as their vacation destination during the tsunami and earthquake of 2004. Asked if they were lucky or unlucky—the latter because their vacation was ruined—95 percent chose lucky, with the remaining 5 percent believing a combination of the two.
Their interpretation mattered. Those taking the “Why me?” approach compare upwards to those who didn’t choose Asia. The downward comparison—it’s better to have survived than not—turns out to be the emotionally beneficial route. Wald concludes,
Both are valid interpretations, but the downward comparison helps you to hold on to optimism, summon the feel-good emotion of gratitude, and to weave a larger narrative in which you are the lucky protagonist of your life story.
Derek’s next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.