Etymologically, the prefix “hap” means luck or fortune, as you might recognize in words like perhaps, happenstance, haphazard, or—most relevant here—happy. Many other languages also show this overlap between “happy” and “lucky.” But what does being happy have to do with luck?
According to a recent study, happy people have very specific beliefs about luck. They’re less likely to see luck as some kind of outer force that makes things happen for people, but more likely to consider themselves personally lucky—a subtle but important distinction.
To discover the connection between luck and happiness, a team of researchers from the U.K. and Hong Kong gave surveys to 844 English-speaking university students in Hong Kong. The survey questions measured their thoughts about luck, their happiness levels, and their personality traits.
The researchers observed that less happy people tended to have a stronger belief in external luck—the “Good luck with that!” variety that dictates our fate, good or bad. The authors point out that blaming “luck” for events and experiences deprives people of personal agency and self-determination, which diminishes their sense of purpose and, in turn, their overall happiness. Believing that we need luck to be successful, or that bad luck is somehow the source of all our setbacks, may dampen our motivation to pursue goals, take risks, or learn and grow from our mistakes.
On the other hand, according to the surveys, happier people tended to believe themselves to be personally lucky. Viewing yourself as lucky, the researchers suggest, can be considered a variant of optimism or gratitude that breeds hope, self-acceptance, connection, and other positive experiences. Personally lucky people may feel more confident to try new things, be inspired to serve a meaningful cause, or act in ways that help others because they feel that life has been kind to them.
But what drives this difference? Next, the research team looked at how people’s personality traits factored in. They found that people who believed in fate-determining luck tended to be more neurotic, or prone to negative emotions, and in turn were less happy. In other words, the problems with believing in luck seem to be mainly due to co-occurring neuroticism. But when people with neurotic personalities believe they are especially lucky, they suffer less of a hit to happiness.
While this study is compelling, it is important to keep its limits in mind. First of all, the data all come from surveys filled out by the participants themselves, which means that the responses may be biased by people’s intentions, beliefs, and context. Second, the participants were all Chinese residents of Hong Kong, which means their ethics and norms around personality, luck, and happiness may not be applicable to people of all cultures. Third, the use of a one-time survey means that we cannot definitively conclude that any one factor (beliefs in luck, personality traits, or happiness) causes the other—only that they tend to go together.
Regardless of these limits, this study highlights the value of thinking about luck as something that benefits us, in contrast to believing in luck as an intangible force that may or may not serve our interests. One way to adopt this happier perspective on luck is through optimism practices like Three Good Things and Finding Silver Linings, which get us into the habit of noticing our good fortune.
Ultimately, this study helps explain why we call people “happy go lucky”—because happy is how we feel when we dwell on how personally lucky we are.