science of us

What People Who Are ‘Lucky in Love’ All Have in Common

Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

Recently, at home over dinner, I asked my husband, Ron, what he thought had made us lucky in love.

“Probably Netflix,” he said.

“Netflix?” I asked, puzzled.

“Right. We can never find anything to watch because you’re trying to pick something I’ll like, and I want to pick what you’ll like. It cuts down on how many movies we see. But it’s why we feel very lucky with each other.”

I liked that explanation. When you let the other person’s desires ride as high in importance as what you want (and your partner does the same), you both feel loved and lucky and supported. Ron’s definition of lucky in love matched our survey. But can you be lucky all the time? Over the years, we’d had small squabbles and big clashes. At weddings, I sometimes think that the best gift I could give the bride and groom is a note that reads: “You’ll have some bad days!” Maybe I could just slip a message inside the Cuisinart box saying that the real secret to luck in marriage is just deciding that you’ll stay together, no matter what.

That’s not so far off, according to Duke psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely, famous for his research into the irrational ways that people behave. If you’ve ever spent 20 minutes online looking for the cheapest price on Rice Krispies and then gone out for a fancy dinner, you know what he means by irrational. With all Ariely’s research, I wondered if he’d come up with any insights on the rational way to get lucky in love.

You bet he had.

“We have to get out of the mind-​­set of thinking you’re looking for the best person in the world — because the best person in the world doesn’t exist and looking is futile,” he said bluntly. “At some point you say, ‘This person is wonderful.’ Maybe somebody out there is more wonderful, but I don’t want to keep searching.”

If you believe in true love, you may not want to sign on with Prince (or Princess) Okay when Prince Perfect may be just around the corner. But Ariely thinks having a plan is the best way to get lucky in love. Even in the most emotional of realms, you can’t rely on your emotions. Following our instincts in love (or work or finance or buying Rice Krispies) doesn’t always lead to the best rational choice. If you’re single and want to get lucky in love, you can’t just hope for love to land — you need a strategy.

As we chatted, Ariely compared dating to investing in the stock market. You think you have a rational approach, but then something changes, and you panic and let the emotions of a moment change your plan. “To be lucky in love or the stock market, you don’t want to let your nature run the show,” he said.

But then he stopped himself to point out one big difference between stocks and people. When you choose a stock, the stock doesn’t change. But the moment you choose a person, the relationship alters. “You make luck when you decide that you’re going to be here for a long time, so let’s explore and figure out what works,” said Ariely.
“A relationship gets better when you invest in it. The commitment creates new opportunities.”

To be lucky in love, you need to replace the squirm-​­inducing fear of settling with the exciting idea of investing. Put time and effort and trust and love into a person, and you get huge dividends. It occurred to me that Ron and I had followed that route — we were committed to each other and trusted the other one to hang around, no matter what. So we could explore and try things, cutting out the ones that didn’t work and continuing with what did. “If we’re going to be here for a long time, whatever I want for myself is also what I want for you,” Ariely said. “And that’s how you make luck. We can try out new things together and not worry that something won’t work.”

Staying isn’t always the right choice. There are plenty of situations of abuse or other damaging behavior where the only way to get lucky is to leave. But in more benign circumstances, Ariely points out that it’s not the choosing that matters so much as what you do once the choice is made.

Many behavioral psychologists have shown that once we make a decision, our brains kick in to prove that we’ve made the best choice. In various popular experiments, researchers have given volunteers small items such as a mug or a pen, and once it was officially theirs, they could trade it. But few did. Just possessing it made them like it more. And the same held for partners. In one survey of 1,100 people, 86 percent said that they would marry the same person over again.

Ariely offered the example of living in an apartment where you have a short-​­term lease that both you and the landlord have to keep agreeing to renew. “If you’re deciding every day whether to extend the lease, you won’t paint or buy flowers. You’ll always be looking at other options,” he said.

It was a good point on so many levels. When Ron and I were deciding whether we wanted to leave our suburban home and move to Manhattan, I suggested that we rent a small apartment and try it out. If we liked city life, we would take the next step. Ron didn’t like the idea. He thought it would be a completely different experience if we bought a place and made it ours and felt committed. And so that’s what we did. We bought a tiny apartment that was in terrible shape and then lovingly renovated it. I chose the paint colors and the bathroom fixtures and the new kitchen cabinets, and Ron made sure the wiring was as he wanted it and the outlets were in the right places and … well, something about coaxial cable. I didn’t have to understand everything. But the point is, after we invested our time and attention, we loved that little apartment way beyond reason.

I’m sure there are people who can get a short-​­term rental and still decide to paint and buy fresh flowers and recaulk the bathtub. But somehow it’s easier when you know you’ll be sticking around.

Excerpted from the book How Luck Happens: Using the Science of Luck to Transform Work, Love, and Life by Janice Kaplan and Barnaby Marsh. Copyright © 2018 by Janice Kaplan and Barnaby Marsh. Reprinted with permission of Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

What People Who Are ‘Lucky in Love’ All Have in Common