In Luck We Trust: Believe to Receive

Luck has fascinated philosophers for millennia.

Solon believed that all human success was just good luck, while Democritus consistently downplayed the influence of luck on people’s lives. Aristotle devoted a great deal of thought to luck, and considered the topic at length in his texts on ethics and physics.

People still debate the existence of luck, its nature, and the extent of its influence on the outcome of human affairs.

Whether we believe in the existence of luck largely depends on how we view the concept of luck.

Is luck an external force or a personal attribute? Is it stable or unpredictable? Is it nothing more than a way for us to frame happenstance in terms of whether the result was favorable or unfavorable?

Debating the properties of luck may seem like a semantic dispute to some. But research indicates that people who believe in luck are better at recognizing and seizing opportunity, and that the type of luck they believe in can make the difference between being lucky or unlucky.

Brands of luck

Most of the psychological literature suggests two primary individual differences regarding luck belief: [1, 2]

  • Internal luck is seen as a stable, personal attribute that influences events in our favor and may be subject to some measure of control.
  • External luck is seen as an unstable, random force that is unpredictable and difficult to account for or capitalize on.

External luck is more a reflection of the outcome of chance events. If a chance event turns out to be favorable, it is considered good luck. If it is unfavorable, it is considered bad luck.

In this view, chance applies to events, and luck attaches itself to the person affected by the event.[3]

Internal luck, however, is viewed as a personal trait that may continue to favorably influence life events over time. This may lead to the belief that someone’s luck – like other stable personal qualities – may provide some degree of control.[4]

Benefits of luck belief

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley Kowalski said, “You know what luck is? Luck is believing you’re lucky, that’s all.”

Belief in the internal variety of luck is sometimes considered irrational, yet it is this brand of luck belief that provides the most benefit.

Some of the benefits attributed to belief in stable, personal luck include:

  • More motivation to achieve
  • Increased perception of control
  • Greater optimism
  • More confidence
  • Stronger goal orientation
  • Elevated hopefulness
  • Increased self-efficacy
  • Greater openness and receptivity
  • Improved coping skills
  • Enhanced subjective well-being

Machiavelli said, “I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.”

Many modern billionaires – including Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg – have openly and frequently acknowledged the significant role that luck played in the attainment of their great fortunes.

But when you listen to these people discuss luck at length, they don’t speak of luck as some ethereal, arbitrary force. Rather, they view luck mostly as possibilities that were presented to them through chance events.

Research demonstrates that belief in personal luck does not preclude a rational understanding of probability. We can fully recognize when chance does not favor us, but still accept the idea that luck sometimes shepherds substantial benefits to individual people.[5]

In the context of everyday life, people often perceive chance to be more related to a surprise event or unexpected coincidence, and luck to be more related to escaping a negative consequence or achieving something important or difficult.[6]

Believing in personal luck means acknowledging chance and accepting probability, but also remaining confident that we have the capability to act when chance presents us with the possibility to achieve something positive.

We generally see good luck as the positive consequence of a chance occurrence.

If we consciously prepare ourselves to recognize and act on the possibilities afforded us by chance, we will naturally increase our belief in our personal luck.

We can’t control the occurrence of chance events, but we can control how we respond to them.

Boosting your personal luck profile

If we want to bolster our belief in our own personal luck, we can start by adopting some of the attitudes and behaviors of other lucky people.

Philosopher Nicholas Rescher cautions us that while we shouldn’t rely on luck, we also shouldn’t discount its potential.

Rescher also offers four sensible precepts that we can use to help shape our attitude about luck: [7]

  • Be realistic in your judgments. Make a clear and rational assessment of the probabilities before choosing a course of action in response to a chance event.
  • Be realistic in expectations. Do the best you can with the knowledge and resources you have. There is often only so much we can do under uncertain conditions.
  • Be prudently adventuresome. Try to keep the odds on your side, but don’t be so risk-averse that you miss out on genuine opportunities.
  • Be cautiously optimistic. Don’t let fear of failure keep you from making your best effort to capitalize on a chance opportunity.

Noted psychologist, luck researcher, and paranormal phenomena debunker Richard Wiseman proposed four principles that lucky people use to boost their own good fortune: [8]

  • Maximize chance opportunities. Lucky people are skilled at creating and recognizing opportunity, and they act on it. They also establish and nurture strong networks, and are relaxed, receptive, and open.
  • Listen to your hunches. Lucky people trust their intuition, and they tend to trust people in their network whom they hold in high regard. They also use meditation and other mindfulness techniques to boost their intuition.
  • Expect good fortune. Lucky people maintain an optimistic view of their future self to motivate them to achieve their vision. They expect good things to happen, and they persevere through adversity.
  • Turn bad luck into good. Lucky people develop a knack for turning negatives into positives. They engage in counterfactual thinking and constructive problem solving to mitigate the impact of setbacks and reveal alternative possibilities.

Some of Wiseman’s principles are similar to the five characteristics of lucky people originally suggested by Max Gunther in the 1970s. Here are Gunther’s original five characteristics, as he labeled them: [9]

  • The Spiderweb Structure. Lucky people position themselves to receive more opportunities by building a large network of connections with other people. They make a habit of initiating new contacts, and are not afraid to ask for help.
  • The Hunching Skill. Lucky people tend to generate fairly accurate hunches, and they trust and act on them. They are skilled at assessing what prior knowledge and experience is driving their gut feeling. They know the difference between a valid hunch and a first impression or a knee-jerk emotional reaction.
  • Audentes Fortuna Juvat. This is the Latin aphorism meaning “fortune favors the bold.” Lucky people take a bold approach to seizing opportunity, and are willing to zigzag when they see something worth pursuing. They stay alert and willing to act, but they know the difference between boldness and rashness. They are willing to accept small losses for the possibility of large gains.
  • The Ratchet Effect. Lucky people know how and when to bail out of a deteriorating situation before it gets worse. They are not afraid to admit they were wrong, and they are willing to abandon a bad investment and take a manageable loss to escape a big one.
  • The Pessimism Paradox. Lucky people know how to temper their enthusiasm by nurturing a healthy pessimism. Lucky people may hope for the best, but they prepare for the worst. They may expect success, but they don’t assume it. They are keenly aware that the unforeseeable and uncontrollable may occur at any time. They make contingency plans, and they don’t fall victim to the illusion of control.

Bolster your belief

Singer, actor, and pork patty purveyor Jimmy Dean – renowned for his homespun humor and hard-nosed business tactics – once offered the following advice:

“You gotta try your luck at least once a day, because you could be going around lucky all day and not even know it.”

A big reason that lucky people are lucky is because they are willing to try their luck. You can’t win if you don’t play. Fortune favors the bold.

Unlucky people tend to be passive, risk-averse, and fearful of change. They continuously talk themselves out of action. They can’t win because they don’t play.

Belief in personal luck is not belief in some mystical force that guides us to good or bad fortune according to some unknowable supernatural law.

Belief in personal luck is belief in ourselves.

It is the belief that we can recognize and responsibly evaluate opportunities, that we can be bold without being rash, that our hunches are based on legitimate knowledge and experience and not on prejudice or emotion, that we can admit occasional failure and walk away from small losses before we go completely under, that we can explore and embrace alternative possibilities after a setback, and that we can prepare for adversity and still maintain the level of optimism and hope we need to stay motivated and persevere.

We can bolster our belief in our luck and ourselves by working to improve the skills that lucky people seem to have acquired, whether by nature or nurture.

Mastery improves our feeling of self-efficacy, which we need to boldly pursue the opportunities that chance reveals.

If we train ourselves to handle what chance presents, then we will have improved our odds in favor of the consequence being good.

And if we can learn to tilt the odds in our favor when something looks good – and to walk away when something looks bad – then we can consider ourselves lucky.


1. Peter R. Darke and Jonathan L. Freedman, “The Belief in Good Luck Scale,” Journal of Research in Personality 31, no. 4 (December 1997): 486-488.

2. Liza Day and John Maltby, “’With Good Luck’: Belief in Good Luck and Cognitive Planning,” Personality and Individual Differences 39, no. 7 (November 2005): 1218.

3. Duncan Pritchard and Matthew Smith, “The Psychology and Philosophy of Luck,” New Ideas in Psychology 22, no. 1 (April 2004): 5.

4. Darke and Freedman, “Belief in Good Luck,” 488.

5. Willem A. Wagenaar and Gideon B. Keren, “Chance and Luck are Not the Same,” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 1, no. 2 (1988): 73.

6. Ibid, 65.

7. Nicholas Rescher, Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995), 106.

8. Richard Wiseman, The Luck Factor, (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 31-162.

9. Max Gunther, The Luck Factor: Why Some People Are Luckier Than Others and How You Can Become One of Them, (Petersfield, UK: Harriman House, 2009), 118-201.

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