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Why luck is a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to this expert

Luck is one of humanity's most useful concepts for making sense of random chance and the (seemingly) unexplainable. If you find a $20 bill on the ground, you have good luck. If a gust of wind blows away your $20 bill just as you pull it out of your wallet, you have bad luck.

Around the New Year and Lunar New Year, luck rituals around the world are performed to bring in the good stuff and banish the bad stuff. But what role does luck play in our everyday lives? Do people actually have the power to make themselves lucky?

Richard Wiseman, who wrote a book about luck and is a psychology professor at University of Hertfordshire, said that he's found there are such things as lucky and unlucky people.

"We worked with exceptionally lucky and unlucky people [in our research]," he said. "There are huge differences in their lives."

While "lucky people are always in the right place at the right time," unlucky people can't catch a break.

"I think a big part of that, not all of it, but a big part of it is the way in which they're thinking and where they're behaving," Wiseman said.

Watch the conversation in the player above.

Wiseman argued that psychological behaviors are what determine the luck a person perceives in their life. In a paper published in Developmental Psychology, psychology professor Jacqueline D. Woolley of University of Texas, defined luck in three ways: a supernatural event; an explanation people use to make sense of certain events; and a personal attribute one has within themselves.

In the conversation with the PBS NewsHour, Wiseman focused on the personal attribute definition, saying that people who believe lucky things happen to them tended to fare better than people who felt unlucky.

"The lucky people knew how to bounce back. The unlucky ones tended to get dragged down by that failure," he said.

So if luck is based on psychological behavior, can you change your luck? "You absolutely can," Wiseman said.

He suggested making small changes in your everyday routine, like writing down notes of gratitude and how you felt lucky at the end of a day for several weeks. You can also switch up something as simple as taking a different route to work or school. Even changing up the shows you watch on TV can create new modes of thinking. In the words of Roman philosopher Seneca, "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

"Another thing is … being a flexible thinker and having a flexible approach to life," he said. "Anything like that will mean you're more open to opportunities when they come along. So these are very simple things everyone can do, but they have quite a large impact."

Luck also plays a big role in society, Wiseman said. For example, during the recent Lunar New Year, many Asian cultures seek better luck and abundance by using the color red and eating fish. He said that these kinds of rituals have been around for a long time because of the way human nature behaves.

"[Luck] manifests itself in a different way in different societies. But what's underpinning that is that we like to be in control," Wiseman said. "We feel anxious and worried if we're in situations where we're not in control. And so what people do to try and court good luck is all sorts of rituals, some of them superstitious."

Wiseman said luck affects all parts of society, even those people who may be trained to be more skeptical of the idea.

"I know very rational scientists that would still talk about crossing their fingers or touching wood," he said. "So it's something that's deeply ingrained in our psyche."

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