Why Believing in Luck Makes You a Better Person

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To Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, America has a luck problem. Simply put, people don’t realize just how profound a role luck plays in where people end up in life — we prefer to act as though there’s a simple correlation between effort/talent and success. In a great article in The Atlantic, he lays out his case for why we’d be better off as a society if we tamped down a bit on this persistent myth and adopted a more realistic, luck-centered approach to explaining the world.

Citing a couple striking examples from both his life and that of the superstar writer Michael Lewis — whose blockbuster first book, Liar’s Poker, came about as a result of a chance encounter at a dinner party — Frank makes this case convincingly. But then he takes it further, running down a bunch of research suggesting that understanding the role of luck doesn’t just cause people to view the world more accurately, but actually makes them better in meaningful ways.

He cites a couple studies, for example, which suggest “that being prompted to recognize luck can encourage generosity.” In one of them, a group of participants prompted to think of something positive that had happened to them and then list factors beyond their control that contributed to it donated more money to charity than groups prompted to list other, less luck-focused reasons for their success.

Frank also mentions the broader literature, suggesting that the feeling of gratitude brings with it all sorts of benefits:

In an unexpected twist, we may even find that recognizing our luck increases our good fortune. Social scientists have been studying gratitude intensively for almost two decades, and have found that it produces a remarkable array of physical, psychological, and social changes. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami have been among the most prolific contributors to this effort. In one of their collaborations, they asked a first group of people to keep diaries in which they noted things that had made them feel grateful, a second group to note things that had made them feel irritated, and a third group to simply record events. After 10 weeks, the researchers reported dramatic changes in those who had noted their feelings of gratitude. The newly grateful had less frequent and less severe aches and pains and improved sleep quality. They reported greater happiness and alertness. They described themselves as more outgoing and compassionate, and less likely to feel lonely and isolated.

Promoting belief in the role of luck is easier said than done, of course, and it can feel like a hit to people’s egos: “You’re telling me I haven’t earned what I have? That’s ridiculous!” So maybe the focus on gratitude is the way in, since research suggests gratitude exercises are simply good mental-health hygiene. And the fact that gratitude is also an easy “gateway drug” toward a more luck-informed understanding of the world is, well, pretty lucky.

Why Believing in Luck Makes You a Better Person