We say, “Good luck!” to a friend about to embark on something perilous like mountain climbing or an IRS audit, but what does that mean? What is luck? Webster calls it a force that can bring good or bad fortune. This so-called “force” is supposed to be involved in all our risky endeavors like poker games and matrimony, but no one can prove luck actually exists. It might just be a word we made up to explain life’s ups and downs.

Mathematicians insist the final results of any undertaking will be determined by the laws of probability. Any other explanation, they say, is just wishful thinking. But can’t we influence the probability laws by increasing our efforts to reach our goals? Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn once claimed, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Some believe in mysterious and unearned types of good fortune like “dumb luck” and “beginner’s luck”. Shakespeare wrote, “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.” And an arab proverb predicts, “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come up with a fish in his mouth.”

Studies have shown people who believe in good luck lead happier lives while pessimists might be taking too many risks and getting more than their share of disappointments.

A dismal outlook can have a negative effect on your future. A hypnotherapist I once interviewed said slumping athletes he’s treated had to be taught to envision themselves giving winning performances rather than expecting another bad day on the field, the court or the golf course.

Religion and luck have been intertwined for centuries as the devout prayed for good fortune. The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas used human sacrifices, voluntary and otherwise, to influence their deities. Most of us now just politely ask God to tilt the odds in our favor from time to time. There are probably more prayers recited at the church Bingo games than during the Sunday services. (“Oh, please Lord, make him call B14!)

But even with divine intervention, the supplicant’s participation is needed. A poor widow once begged God to help her win the lottery. After several weeks of fruitless praying, she complained to God about being ignored. Suddenly she heard a thunderous voice from above: “For heaven’s sake, buy a ticket.”

The best observation about luck I’ve ever read was by the author Jean Cocteau. “We must believe in luck,” he wrote. “For how else can we explain the successes of those we do not like?”

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