Today’s My Lucky Day

I spent the morning at DMV. How can that be lucky? Who wants to spend the last day of summer vacation at the DMV? I would have said no one but the hundred-person line in front of me before the doors opened at 8:30 AM indicated otherwise.

As I drove into the DMV parking lot, I realized that I didn’t have any tools to remove the license plates from my new (2002) car that I just purchased for $10 from my mother. But lo and behold, the man behind me in the hundred-person line had just the right size screwdriver and offered to help. The people flanking us in line held our spots while my new best friend and I went to retrieve the plates. How lucky am I?


What is the psychology of feeling lucky? Dr. Richard Wiseman, University of Hertfordshire psychologist and author of The Luck Factor, has spent the better part of his career researching the psychology of luck. Although luck is commonly thought to be a force that operates somewhat mysteriously and unpredictably to bring us good or bad fortune, Wiseman has identified that “feeling lucky” is better understood as the gift of a certain combination of mindset, temperament, and behavior.


Feeling lucky is not the same as being superstitious. Around a quarter of Americans describe themselves as superstitious. Most of us have owned amulets and lucky charms at some point. Many of us have lucky numbers (my family’s is 24). But really…these possessions and associations have no predictable, scientific pathway to impacting our fortune. That’s what puts them in the camp of superstition. In contrast, Wiseman describes four qualities of mindset have been scientifically demonstrated to increase one’s experience of good fortune, and this is what feeling lucky is all about.


Cool studies of lucky people. Wiseman’s study designs were quite simple. They manipulated various external conditions and chance opportunities and analyzed the relationship between cognitive styles, character traits and behavior with the subjective report of feeling lucky and being lucky. In one early study, for example, he had study participants tally the number of pictures in a newspaper. Within a few minutes, nearly everyone accurately counted 43. However, they could have completed the task within seconds had they read the large type on the second page that said, “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” In the condition when instructed to look for anything unusual, most everyone saw the message on page two within seconds. By manipulating the instructions in this study and other to either promote drive and focus vs. openness and curiosity, Wiseman was able to document the link between openness to new experience, chance encounters and feeling lucky.


The role of the counterfactual in objectively bad situations. Feeling lucky often has less to do with our objective circumstances and more to do with how we interpret our circumstances. This is a foundational principle of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which holds that different people will interpret the same situation quite differently, and those differences will impact how we feel. It may be that when lucky people are confronted with a bad situation, they are more likely to focus on how their circumstances could have been worse. This kind of counterfactual thinking, or thinking about what could have been, helps to soften the emotional impact of the ill fortune for lucky people. In contrast, people who think of themselves as unlucky may be more prone to counterfactual thinking that takes them in the opposite direction.


The lucky mindset. Directing more than a decade of research in this area, Wiseman collected data on mindset, temperament, and personality of lucky people. He found that those who call themselves lucky score higher on the personality factor of extraversion and openness and lower on the personality factor of neuroticism, which is the tendency to experience negative emotional states like anxiety, angerguilt, and depression. Wiseman ultimately distilled this work to describe four essential features of people with a lucky mindset. Lucky people: 1) create and notice chance opportunities, 2) listen to their intuition, 3) maintain positive expectations, and 4) adopt a resilient attitude in the face of adverse situations.

In record time, I renewed my driver’s license and transferred the titles of two cars – one for the purchase of my mother’s 2002 car and the other for the sale of my 2006 car to my son (We are obviously not car people). Feeling lucky, I decided I would attempt to retrieve my great niece’s ceramic pieces from summer camp, which had ended weeks ago. When I got to the campus, no one was around except the school security officer who was doubtful but willing to help me look. Just when we were about to give up, he suggested one last place to check. I smiled all the way home with the ceramic masterpieces in the back seat of my “new” car. How lucky can one person be in a day?

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
[email protected]