We’ve still got builders working busily round us as we settle into our new home. They’re finishing off various bits and pieces in a very good-humoured way and I’ll miss them when they move on. Usually we manage not to trip over one another too much but the other day I was on my way to the dustbin when I realised that the path was blocked. I could have simply ducked under the ladder that was propped against the wall but instead I chose to wait patiently whilst Paul the builder finished sawing a piece of wood. As I stood there holding a bag of rubbish and getting wet in the drizzle, I wondered whether I could dispense with my superstitions—I’m embarrassed to say that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Old habits run deep and these have been passed to me through my mother who was full of odd notions. She wouldn’t open an umbrella in the house, she threw salt over her shoulder, and she said that if you accidentally put your clothes on inside out then you mustn’t take them off and put them on the right way. I’ve never been convinced by that as I don’t recall her ever going out and looking strange. Perhaps she just gave lip service to that one.
Annoyingly, I acquired a new superstition a few years ago when a friend told me that failing to greet a single magpie brings bad luck. At the time I was in the midst of some tricky life events and didn’t dare risk making them worse so although it was something new to worry about, I started doing what my friend does, which is to salute them. It quickly became a reflex action and suddenly these imposing black and white birds seemed to be everywhere, hopping about like lone delinquents. Then I met the man who is now my husband. As we drove through the New Forest on one of our first dates, I was aware out of the corner of my eye that he was looking at me curiously. We were both wary at this early stage of our relationship, and eventually he asked why I kept jerking my arm up to my head. We stopped for a drink in the garden of a pretty little pub and I tried to explain. But it sounded silly and as a confirmed scientist he was bemused.
Of course I know rationally that superstition is nonsense. It’s just a collection of odd habits and an unquestioning trust in magical beliefs. The psychologist, Professor Richard Wiseman found experimentally that people who use superstitions to ward off bad luck were no luckier than those who were not superstitious.
Perhaps it’s time to drop the funny habits and salutes. Particularly as some of Wiseman’s other research into luck is thought-provoking and much more useful. He got people to rate themselves as either lucky or unlucky and then compared them. The reality of luck is that people who believe they’re lucky aren’t inherently luckier than those who consider themselves unlucky. They’re no more likely to win the lottery, for example, because that’s simply down to probability. But where the difference between ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people starts to matter is in the way they create their opportunities.
People who believe they’re lucky have different personality characteristics from those who feel unlucky. They’re more extrovert so they keep in contact with people better, smile more and make more eye contact. These social skills create opportunities. ‘Lucky’ people are also more open. They welcome unpredictability and are not bound by conventions. As such, they tend to travel more and to welcome new experiences. Wiseman describes a man who noticed that he always talked to the same kind of people at parties. So he decided to disrupt the routine, make life more fun and create new opportunities by thinking of a colour and gravitating towards people wearing that colour. At one party he only spoke to women wearing red, and at another to men wearing black.
Even those ‘lucky’ people who have real bad luck, tend to turn it round. I saw this with a dear friend who was dying of a dreadful disease. She never asked, “Why me?” Instead she said in her final days that she felt very lucky because she was surrounded by love.
I recently watched Inside Obama’s White House and there was a wonderful moment when Obama had to struggle with a difficult decision about healthcare. ‘You’ll need to be lucky for it to work,’ said his advisers. He stood still for a few moments and stared out of the window. ‘Where are we?’ he asked. ‘Sir, we’re in the Oval Office,’ came the reply. ‘And what’s my name?’ he said. ‘President Barack Obama,’ replied the aide. ‘Then I feel lucky every day,’ he said.
The United States of America is going to need some luck on Tuesday and I for one, am not taking any chances. I’ll be saluting those magpies, keeping my fingers firmly crossed and wearing my lucky knickers. I only hope that Hillary’s wearing hers too.