Can We Control Our Luck?

- in In English, På djupet

Total randomness or help from powers above? Lundagård spoke to three scholars on how we should approach the concept of luck. 

You must have encountered something like this: there is a multiple-choice question in an exam that you cannot figure out, and you have to guess and trust your gut. After the exam, you find that it happens to be just the correct answer. How lucky! But is there really such a thing as luck? If yes, what is it? And is it something that we can control?

Johan Nilsson is a post doc at the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, specialising in esotericism. In spite of his research, he has no religious belief himself. He finds it hard to define luck, but he believes there are practical ways to make life better, like being a well-organised person. Things that happen as a result of influencing factors that we do not know or cannot control are regarded as random. What we consider random also differs for different people depending on what kind of knowledge they have. “I know that weather is not random, but it can feel random to me if I am not certain of what makes it rain. If you study meteorology, then weather is scientifically predictable”, he says.

Like all religious traditions, the symbols and allegories for how to live your life can be inspiring.

Considering something more mysterious, Johan Nilsson tells a story about tarot cards. From the very beginning, tarot cards were merely regular playing cards. The fascinating card game was interpreted by French esotericists to have spiritual secrets in it. From his view, the divination function of tarot is made up. “But like all religious traditions, the symbols and allegories for how to live your life can be inspiring”, Johan Nilsson says, and brings up meditation as another example.

He conceives the relationship between people’s perception of luck and their outlook on life similar to the chicken and egg causality dilemma. Is it positive attitudes towards life that make people feel lucky about their experiences? Or is it lucky experiences that generate a positive outlook on life? The genral concept of luck is so woven into our everyday experiences that it is hard to know where to begin. But Johan Nilsson appreciates such “ignorance”: “if there is only the mechanics of natural law as a physicist may claim, then I would not like my life as much”, he concludes.

A very concrete definition of luck is given by a professor of theoretical philosophy, Erik J. Olsson. He defines luck as improbable events that are favourable to someone, like someone who happens to win a lottery among millions of people buying into it. For the explanation of why it falls on that specific person, and not on others, he claims that: “if you are satisfied with explanation referring to randomness, then it is something you can explain, but many people do not like this explanation.”

I don’t lie awake at night thinking that perhaps they will think this or that.

Erik J. Olsson hardly thinks of uncertain things like luck himself and prefers to focus more on things where he can actually control the outcome. However, it is undeniable that we cannot have full charge of everything happening in our life. When facing something where we are only partially in command, Erik J. Olsson believes it is important to be proactive and take the first step to give it a try. If you want to publish a book, at least you should write it and send it to a publisher to give it the possibility or probability to get published. “I don’t lie awake at night thinking that perhaps they will think this or that about the book. I will leave it and do something else”, Erik J. Olsson says, explaining his own feelings after submitting a manuscript.  

From my point of view, that is a weird way of describing reality.

The existence of luck is denied by Andreas Jakobsson, a professor of Mathematical Statistics. What he believes in is more like randomness. By randomness, he means that there are many possibilities with different probabilities before something really happens. Then one of them occurs, and there is no randomness anymore. Everything is random until we know the result, like rolling a dice before it hits the table. Such a sense of unpredictability captivates Andreas Jakobsson: “That would be more of a philosophical or religious question: if our fate is decided, is the dice already loaded? From my point of view, that’s a weird way of describing reality because then you have lost your freedom of choice if everything is predestined”.

Furthermore, he thinks being lucky or not is a psychological issue, and definitely, there are no “dark forces” controlling luck. “Every time you cross the road, if you are not run over by a car, you don’t register it. If you think about it, there are a lot of things happening that are completely normal, and you just register the extreme ones.” Feeling lucky makes us happy, but he does not think that will affect the outcome of a certain action. His view on luck is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very rational, and he claims, “I have thought this way all my life, so I don’t think my research interests are affecting that.”

For students who hope that luck will save their next exam, professor Jakobsson has a more sensible advice: spend your time better by studying for the exam, instead of praying for it to be easy. If we can affect the result, then be pragmatic, and try our best to increase the probability of the wanted outcome. In contrast, if it is something beyond our control, like whether the sun rises tomorrow, wise people will not have expectations nor worry about it.

According to what the three scholars say, it is hard to give a clear answer on what luck is. But coincidentally, all of them use “randomness” to explain something uncertain. They think of it from different angles. Johan Nilsson takes personal knowledge into consideration, so what is random depends on the person. Erik J. Olsson takes randomness from the standpoint of an event instead of an individual, and Andreas Jakobsson defines it in a professional mathematical way. 

When it comes to feeling lucky or unlucky, they all attach it to one’s personality. An optimistic person probably tends to feel luckier than a pessimistic person. However, it could be the other way around: luck makes people become positive or negative towards life.

Most importantly, being pragmatic is what these scholars have in common. No matter if there is luck, or if it is somehow controlled, what we can be sure about is our efforts when trying to reach our goals.