Serendipity isn't a game of chance. It's much more predictable than that. Experts have identified four habits that can set us all up for good fortune.

By Kate Rockwood
Updated March 08, 2021
Credit: Travis Rathbone

Some people might say that kismet led Anna to her future husband within a week of landing in a new city. But Anna's openness to life's quirky possibilities put her in the right place at the right time to create her own fate.

Contrary to what most of us have always believed, luck isn't some mysterious, ephemeral force. "There are huge chance factors that affect what happens to us, of course," says Richard Wiseman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire in England and author of The Luck Factor. "But to a very large extent, we are responsible for much of the good fortune that we encounter."

And some folks tend to be naturally skilled at spotting good fortune around every turn. To learn how those "lucky" souls do it, Wiseman and other experts have been studying the constellation of traits that separate them from the self-proclaimed unlucky. Their research suggests that four habits in particular can help us all catch a few more breaks.

Expect good things

The first rule of lucky people? They feel lucky, which tilts the scales of serendipity in their favor. But the reason has nothing to do with hocus-pocus, says Wiseman, who has spent 15 years researching folks' perceptions of their fate: "People who count themselves lucky expect the best outcomes, and their expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies."

Researchers at New York University discovered this effect among lovesick undergraduates. In the study, students who believed that they would get a date were significantly more likely to win over the object of their desire.

The simple explanation is self-assurance. If you believe that you'll do well—whether you're trying to impress a crush or pitching a project—you're more motivated to persist until you reach your goal. Feeling lucky might even help you win the door prize at a charity dinner: The more optimistic you are about your chances, the more raffle tickets you'll probably buy (and the more likely you'll be to buy tickets at the next event, despite losing in the past).

Not a Pollyanna by nature? You might want to pick up a rabbit's foot—seriously! Experiments have shown that lucky charms can actually work, by boosting a person's confidence. In a 2010 study at the University of Cologne in Germany, superstitious subjects were asked to play a memory game; people who got to keep their talismans while they played scored higher than those who played without their jujus.

The researchers observed the same phenomenon among golfers who were told that they were playing with a lucky ball: The belief that they had a supernatural edge led them to putt significantly better than golfers in a control group.

Donald Saucier, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Kansas State University, encourages following any (harmless) ritual that makes you feel better when you're nervous, from rubbing a lucky penny to donning special undies: "These optimistic gestures are good at creating comfort—and that can help you perform better."

The key, he says, is coupling your hopeful expectations with action. "If you think luck is going to take care of you entirely, you'll do less to design your own destiny," he explains. "But if a superstition helps you manage your emotions so you can focus on the problem at hand, that's awesome."

Court chance

Another reason good fortune seems to find certain people is that they make themselves easy to find, says Tania Luna, a researcher at Hunter College in New York City and author of the new book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected. "Lucky people court chance by breaking routine, saying yes more often and meeting people beyond their circle," she notes.

Indeed, Wiseman has learned that lucky people cultivate lots of friends and acquaintances. In one study, he showed hundreds of participants a list of common last names and asked them to indicate if they were on a first-name basis with at least one person who had each surname. Of the subjects who considered themselves lucky, nearly 50 percent ticked eight names or more. Only 25 percent of unlucky people could do the same.

"Lucky people talk to lots of people, attract people to them and keep in touch," Wiseman says. "These habits result in a 'network of luck,' creating potential for fortuitous connections."

But if striking up small talk with strangers isn't your style, you can still create that advantage, Luna says: "Reach out to an old friend you haven't seen since high school. Or invite a colleague to join you at a new lunch spot. The idea is to move outside your comfort zone."

Colleen Seifert, PhD, a cognitive scientist and a professor at the University of Michigan, echoes Luna's advice to get out of your everyday rut, which could mean attending a conference, for example, or volunteering at a political fundraiser—even signing up for scuba-diving lessons. "Throwing a little chaos into your life opens you up to a chance encounter," she explains. That person could end up being your soul mate, future business partner or just someone you chat with for five minutes and never see again. But that's OK. The goal is to stay open to possibilities.

Next Page: Look for silver linings [ pagebreak ]
Look for silver linings

Photo: Travis RathboneHere's a novel way to boost your success: Find the value in bad luck. Even if something doesn't turn out the way you wanted, consider that it may be a blessing in disguise, Luna says.

"When you reframe a situation in your mind, your brain actually processes it differently," she explains. For a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Luna showed kids emotionally intense images—like a dog growling and a boy crying—while measuring the activity in their brains. Then she showed them the same images again and offered a reassuring explanation for each, like "This dog is defending a little girl" and "This boy has just been reunited with his mom." The participants' brains exhibited a dramatic drop in activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes fear. "It was like they were seeing completely different photos," she says.

Lucky people reframe negative experiences in a similar way. When they hit a stumbling block, they're more likely to transform it into a positive event, Wiseman says, which helps them maintain their optimism and continue taking chances. "They have an uncanny ability to cope with adversity," he says, "and even thrive in spite of it."

To build that type of resilience, Luna recommends facing your next setback with a series of questions that will help you move forward: What's one bright side effect? What have I learned from the experience? What do I want now? And how can I get it?

"Lucky people know that with uncertainty comes opportunity," Luna says. "Fortunately for everyone else, shifting how you perceive things is a trainable skill." The more quickly you can bounce back from a blow, the sooner you'll be able to spot your next big break, and the more likely you'll be to go for it.

Trust your gut

Elizabeth B. remembers her luckiest moment as if it happened yesterday: She was driving home to New York from her parents' house in Pennsylvania a few years ago when something told her to stop and buy a lotto ticket. "I never, ever play the lottery," she says, "but the idea popped into my head and I listened." After she pulled over, a terrible accident occurred just ahead on the road: "A pickup had crossed into my lane and crashed into a guardrail. If I hadn't stopped, my car would have been totaled."

Maybe Elizabeth's pit stop was an incredibly fortuitous fluke. Or maybe her intuition had warned her to get away from an erratic driver approaching in the distance.

She can't be sure. But what scientists do know is that we process far more visual information and other sensory details than we consciously realize, which sometimes leads to instincts we can't explain.

Lucky people listen to those hunches, Wiseman says. His research shows that 80 percent of them use their intuition as a guiding rod in their careers, and 90 percent trust their gut in personal relationships.

"Intuitive feelings are faster than normal forms of thinking," explains Karla Starr, an expert in the psychology of luck and the author of an upcoming book on the subject. They often hit you on a visceral level before your consciousness catches up.

A study by the U.K.'s Medical Research Council demonstrated the power of these subtle physical signals. Researcher Barnaby Dunn, PhD, asked his subjects to play a game, turning over cards from four decks, while he monitored their heart rates. What the folks didn't know was that the game was rigged: Two of the decks were stacked with high-value cards, and two were stacked with bad cards.

After just a few rounds, the players' heart rates dipped when they went near the high-value decks—indicating that their bodies had identified the difference in the decks before their minds suspected a thing.

The trick to tapping into that sixth sense is trusting your instincts. Wiseman has found that lucky people are more apt to do activities that help them tune in to their inner voice, like meditating and taking walks.

A gut check can improve your luck in another way, too, Starr says: "It can help you act more decisively." In other words, a hunch about your fate may be just the bump in confidence you need to reach for the stars—and make them align.