Want To Improve Your Luck?

It's lucky Tracy Hart has a sense of humor, because nothing else seems to have gone her way. "People say that bad luck comes in threes," says Hart, 34, a former supermarket clerk in rural England. "For me, it's always come in 18s or 21s."

Never mind that she's unlucky in love, has gotten stuck in dead-end jobs, reversed her car into a tree during a driving lesson and took out a home loan just before the owner had a massive stroke without signing the deed over to her. Most damaging has always been her tendency to get doors slammed on her head and fall into pits and potholes, "like Wile E. Coyote in the comics," she says. "I'd stick out my foot and tumble off the edge."

No longer. In the Fall of 2001, Hart attended an experimental "luck school." Since then she hasn't fallen down once. She's won the lottery, moved to her dream house, started a promising new relationship and even aced a job interview for a new career in forensics.

No one would doubt that lucky breaks can transform our lives. But how many of us believe that the reverse is true--that we can transform our luck? Psychologist Richard Wiseman of England's University of Hertfordshire does. He explains why in his new book, "The Luck Factor" (Miramax Books, $23.95). The volume is based on eight years of research, during which Wiseman conducted 50 surveys and experiments on a total of 400 exceptionally lucky and unlucky individuals, aged 18 to 84.

As Wiseman concluded, most of what we perceive as luck is not mere chance--and therefore unscientific. Instead, it's the outgrowth of our own personalities, with a psychology behind it that researchers can study--and variables that we can change. "Most people have no insight into what's causing their good and bad luck," he says. But once you do, he contends, it isn't hard to improve it.

The proof is in his so-called luck school. After his research was complete, he distilled from his findings the psychological profile of a lucky person, complete with a set of behaviors that lucky people use, without realizing it, to create good fortune in their lives. He then set out to teach 50 new volunteers to act this way. After a month of practicing his exercises and analyzing their experiences through a luck journal, 80 percent of them said their luck improved, on average by 40 percent. The hopelessly unlucky suddenly found dream jobs and mates. The lucky had even more good things happen to them. By contrast, 30 controls who were given charms to carry for the month saw no improvement--not even a "placebo effect."

So what are the secrets of success? Lucky people are not exceptionally kind, generous, brilliant or even talented. They are, however, outgoing, inquisitive and open to new experiences. By continually expanding their social networks, they exponentially increase their odds of meeting other people who will help them find jobs, mates, houses, hobbies and even fun new ideas and adventures--things that may seem like strokes of luck, but aren't random at all. Lucky people are also intuitive enough to listen to their gut instincts when potential opportunities arise. A burgeoning area of psychology has shown that intuition isn't as irrational as it may seem, but is based on the remarkable ability of the subconscious mind to size up situations quickly and either sound danger warnings or give the green light. That's why corporations, firehouses and even nuclear power plants have begun teaching intuition-building seminars.

The unlucky, by contrast, do not create-- or recognize--nearly as many opportunities. They tend to be so preoccupied with their tasks and problems that they stumble over obstacles in their path or walk right past money lying on the sidewalk. If they fail to notice these obvious things, you can imagine how many subtler opportunities they miss. In one revealing experiment, Wiseman had 50 people go through a newspaper and count the pictures. The unlucky concentrated so hard on the assignment that they failed to observe the giant box on page 2 that said, "Stop counting now--there are 43 pictures." They also missed the bold-faced notice promising them $250, if they pointed out the box to the interviewer. Their lucky counterparts picked up on both.

Optimism and resilience also play a role in luck, along with simply learning to look on the bright side of whatever happens. If you expect success, you try harder. Faced with defeat, you bounce back more quickly and start behaving in ways that bring success. These things may sound like common sense, but no matter how obvious, people rarely improve their self-defeating behaviors without some type of help. "During eight years of the original study, not one person changed his or her luck," says Wiseman.

In the end, one reaches an inescapable conclusion. For the most part, luck doesn't exist--at least not in the traditional sense of a cosmic force conferring good or ill. With the exception of a few truly random events, like picking a winning lottery number, most of our luck is what we make for ourselves. This would be a disappointment, if Wiseman didn't offer concrete steps for creating, well, more luck. Almost everyone has room for improvement in one psychological area or another, whether it's building optimism, extroversion, resilience or intuition. That's why even the lucky can get luckier.

Although it may seem impossible to change such ingrained traits, Wiseman offers simple steps that seem to help. Are you a stay-at-home introvert? Challenge yourself to call one old friend every week. Eat in the company cafeteria instead of at your desk. Too pessimistic? Write down the things that happen to you daily and notice how much actually works out well. It will improve your outlook--which in turn will affect your behavior and boost your luck.

Recently the BBC came to interview Tracy Hart about her remarkable change of fortune. Among other things, she talked about the power of simply looking on the bright side. The cameraman had never considered himself unlucky, but as he went to the car on that rainy day, he dropped his car keys down a drain. "How ironic," he said to Hart. "So how do you look on the bright side of this?" Hart replied that it was simple. In the past, she would have fretted that she had to stand outside with him on a cold rainy day. But on this particular afternoon, she felt exceedingly lucky that, as she put it cheerfully, "they're your keys, not mine." Sometimes, luck is just a matter of perspective.