“This is not rehearsed,” Dan Jones says into a microphone.
He’s standing in front of packed crowd in a small auditorium at the Santa Monica Public Library in Los Angeles. The group of 100 or so –which looks to have no shortage of New Yorkers in addition to locals – sucks on Sweet Tart candies; we’ve all been gifted with a pack, along with a Valentine’s Day card, as we made our way through the doors.
Jones, 51, is here to talk about his book, Love Illuminated, which takes on the least rehearsable subject of all (love). He is something of an expert (if anyone can be) having read 50,000 essays on the topic as the editor of the popular New York Times Modern Love column. Yet even after a decade immersed in tales of the heart, Jones isn’t here to offer advice (or answers) about what he calls “life’s most mystifying subject.” He is here to add an editor’s touch — and a wry sense of humor — to other people’s stories.
The book, like the weekly column, is not about Jones. And so instead of talking about himself up on stage, he calls up 12 members of the audience. Each is a one-time Modern Love essayist, and each has prepared a flash reading.
Hope, a writing instructor, explains that the ancient Greeks had eight different words for eight different kinds of love. “So why do we, caretakers of the planet’s international language” she asks, “expect a single generic monosyllabic word to carry so much weight?”
“What I’ll never understand about love,” explains Liz, an architecture professor, “is just how much of my experience of it happens against my will.”
Each of these presenters has written for the popular series: about maternal love, about looking for signs, about marital finance, about a health scare that turned out to be a blessing, about dating (and remarrying) after a divorce. There are at least 20 others in the crowd who’ve also written essays.
“The book was an attempt to figure out what I knew,” says Jones. “I felt like I’d been doing this column for years and years, and it’s the kind of work that you get lost in. These essays are pouring in, you feel like you’re immersed in it, and I feel like I was more marinating in love than mastering it. I was sort of… stewing in it.”
The Modern Love column started ten years ago somewhat by accident. Jones is a novelist, as is his wife; the column was first offered to them as a couple, after essays each had written about their domestic lives caught the attention of an editor.
Nobody turns down an offer to create a column for the New York Times. And yet, “I can’t say we thought it was the best idea,” Jones says. Who was the audience? What would be too risqué? How did you fact check a column about love, anyway?
And yet the essays began piling up, submitted each week by the hundreds. In the beginning, Jones tried to save them all: clipping each published one out from the paper each week, and sliding it into a protective sleeve; he still has dusty stacks of them on a bookshelf by his side of the bed.
But overtime, the physical collection became too much. And, who needed it? The column had grown into a cultural phenomenon. The actress Maria Bello, who hosted Jones’ book party in Los Angeles, used the platform to come out about her female lover. Dennis Leary’s wife, the novelist Ann Leary, wrote about picking up tennis — and a rough patch in their marriage that lasted for years. There has been an attempt to make the column into a TV show (it lost out to a reality show about Sarah Palin’s daughter), albums inspired by it, and anthologies of essays published. And, of course, pouring out one’s heart onto the pages of the New York Times has become a kind of writer’s right of passage not just therapy on the page, but a launchpad for book deals, films, and even future relationships. (There have been at least 37 books spawned from the 465 essays that have run so far.)
Some of what Jones has learned isn’t all that surprising: People still find love by meeting in the flesh; some find it online. Some treat their search like a job, while others happen upon it by chance. Online matchmaking hasn’t made the quest for love any less fraught. And yes, those OK Cupid algorithms do sometimes suck. (He and his wife of 25 years signed up for a dating site to see if they’d get matched with each other. They didn’t.)
But there is a certain wisdom that comes from reading the essays of thousands of strangers. He’s observed how our notions of love have changed over time: there is less incentive to commit and marry than there used to be (especially for women); love has become more about romance than necessity. He notes that a huge number of us (73 percent, according to a 2011 Marist poll) still believe in destiny, and that many of us still go out of our way to look for meaning in otherwise clinical online interactions. He observes how technology – while making matchmaking more accessible – has also made us painstakingly detached. “Acting aloof,” he writes, “is so common these days that sincerity and vulnerability, for many, can start to feel disgusting and unnatural.” (The term “stalker,” he notes, has been watered down to the point where confessing that you really like someone might qualify.)
There are sections on “booty texting,” “sending d**k pix” and “hooking up.” He speaks about the changes to the column topics over time (transgender issues, gay marriage, hooking up), the stories that really touched him (a couple who stayed married after the husband underwent sexual reassignment surgery) and those that drew the most ire (a woman who admitted in print that she loved her husband more than her children).
He’s heard all sorts of “rules” for dating: when to make the big reveal about bisexuality, or an STD, or a divorce, or – in one guy’s case – a single testicle. While a subject like spanking, for example, may not have been suitable for the Grey Lady at the start, “any sense of taboo or self-censorship has vanished.”
As you might imagine, as an editor of a column about love, Jones is frequently asked what he’s learned. But he has no desire to play guru (or therapist). He doesn’t claim to have any particular wisdom, other than knowing a lot of intimate, absurd, funny, and poignant details about a lot of different people’s love lives.
At the Santa Monica library, he pulls out a stack of heart shaped red rubber bracelets – a gag gift he’ll hand out to his guests, for Valentine’s Day. He bends the rubber around his wrist and holds up his arm. “It actually looks not unlike a sunburnt ass on your wrist,” he laughs. But, he continues: “An overexposed private part is what the Modern Love column is all about.”
In 1992, Archie Karas, then a waiter, headed out to Las Vegas. By 1995, he had turned $50 into $40 million, in what has become known as the biggest winning streak in gambling history. Most of us would call it an instance of great luck, or we might say of Archie himself: ‘What a lucky guy!’ The cold-hearted statistician would laugh at our superstious notions, and instead describe a series of chance processes that happened to work out for Karas. In the larger landscape where randomness reigns, anything can happen at any given casino. Calling its beneficiaries lucky is simply sticking a label on it after the fact.
To investigate luck is to take on one of the grandest of all questions: how can we explain what happens to us, and whether we will be winners, losers or somewhere in the middle at love, work, sports, gambling and life overall? As it turns out, new findings suggest that luck is not a phenomenon that appears exclusively in hindsight, like a hail storm on your wedding day. Nor is it an expression of our desire to see patterns where none exist, like a conviction that your yellow sweater is lucky. The concept of luck is not a myth.
Instead, the studies show, luck can be powered by past good or bad luck, personality and, in a meta-twist, even our own ideas and beliefs about luck itself. Lucky streaks are real, but they are the product of more than just blind fate. Our ideas about luck influence the way we behave in risky situations. We really can make our own luck, though we don’t like to think of ourselves as lucky – a descriptor that undermines other qualities, like talent and skill. Luck can be a force, but it’s one we interact with, shape and cultivate. Luck helps determine our fate here on Earth, even if you think its ultimate cause divine.
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Luck is perspective and point of view: if a secular man happened to survive because he took a meeting outside his office at the World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001, he might simply acknowledge random chance in life without assigning a deeper meaning. A Hindu might conclude he had good karma. A Christian might say God was watching out for him so that he could fulfil a special destiny in His service. The mystic could insist he was born under lucky stars, as others are born with green eyes.
Traditionally, the Chinese think luck is an inner trait, like intelligence or upbeat mood, notes Maia Young, a management expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. ‘My mom always used to tell me, “You have a lucky nose”, because its particular shape was a lucky one, according to Chinese lore.’ Growing up in the American Midwest, it dawned on Young that the fleeting luck that Americans often talked about – a luck that seemed to visit the same person at certain times (‘I got lucky on that test!’) but not others (‘I got caught in traffic before my interview!’) – was not equivalent to the unchanging, stable luck her mother saw in her daughter, her nose being an advertisement of its existence within.
‘It’s something that I have that’s a possession of mine, that can be more relied upon than just dumb luck,’ says Young. The distinction stuck with her. You might think someone with a lucky nose wouldn’t roll up their sleeves to work hard – why bother? – but here’s another cultural difference in perceptions of luck. ‘In Chinese culture,’ she says, ‘hard work can go hand-in-hand with being lucky. The belief system accommodates both.’
On the other hand, because Westerners see effort and good fortune as taking up opposite corners of the ring, they are ambivalent about luck. They might pray for it and sincerely wish others they care about ‘Good luck!’ but sometimes they just don’t want to think of themselves as lucky. They’d rather be deserving. The fact that they live in a society that is neither random nor wholly meritocratic makes for an even messier slamdance between ‘hard work’ and ‘luck’. Case in point: when a friend gets into a top law or medical school, we might say: ‘Congratulations! You’ve persevered. You deserve it.’ Were she not to get in, we would say: ‘Acceptance is arbitrary. Everyone’s qualified these days – it’s the luck of the draw.’
Scientists researching luck often look to sports, where chance plays a role in even the most skill-reliant competitions, and outcomes are easy to measure. One of the most studied phenomena in the field is lucky streaks, where players seem to be on fire, so to speak – hence the official term for it, ‘hot hands’. A landmark paper by the Stanford psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky, published in 1985, declared that the hot hand did not exist and was instead an illusion born of that deep-seated tendency to see patterns in our environments. Players and fans disputed the finds, and researchers dubbed their insistence ‘the Hot-Hand Fallacy’.
Last year, however, three Harvard University students caused big trouble for hot-hand deniers. Andrew Bocskocsky, John Ezekowitz and Carolyn Stein reasoned that, once a player is hot, he might be emboldened to take more difficult shots, thereby ‘cancelling out’ the hot-hands effect. (Previous studies falsely assumed a random assortment of shots by players.) The students got hold of a video consisting of 83,000 shot attempts from the 2012-13 US National Basketball Association season, giving them enough information to assess the difficulty of the shots. They showed, first of all, that players who felt ‘hot’ did in fact start taking harder shots. And, after controlling for the difficulty of each shot selected, they found a small yet significant hot-hands effect – that is, those who did well began to do even better over time.
Around the same time, another group, Jeffrey Zwiebel of Stanford and Brett Green of the University of California, Berkeley, found that opponents strengthen their defence against hot players – thereby acting against a hot-hands effect. Previous research didn’t have enough data to take this into account sufficiently, and thus interpreted any decline in a hot player’s performance as proof that he was not on a streak.
Could good luck beget good luck and bad luck really beget bad luck?
Given this impediment, Zweibel and Green decided to look at the sport of baseball, where an opposing team can’t do as much to frustrate a hitter on a roll. They were on to something: when they analysed 12 years of data from Major League Baseball, they found that how a player performed the most recent 25 times at bat was a significant predictor of how he would do the next time. They also calculated that a hot player was 30 per cent more likely to get a home run than if he were not on a winning streak. Lucky streaks are real and not just an illusion, they said.
But what causes them? Is it truly luck, or something else? Perhaps it comes down to the odds. That’s the suggestion from research into both winning and losing streaks from University College London. Researchers Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey analysed about half a million sports bets (courtesy of an online gambling company) and found that those on winning streaks were much more likely than not to keep winning, and those on losing streaks were more likely to keep losing than 50/50 chances would dictate.
For example, a gambler who had just won three times in a row, won 67 per cent of the time on his fourth bet. If he won on his fourth bet, then he cleaned up 72 per cent of the time on the fifth bet. Those who lost their first bets were just 47 per cent likely to win on the second and, if they lost again, only 45 per cent likely to win on the third. Could good luck beget good luck and bad luck really beget bad luck, just as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?
The team then dug deeper to reveal why these streaks were in fact real: it was the bettors’ own doing. As soon as they realised they were winning, they made safer bets, figuring their streaks could not last forever. In other words, they did not believe themselves to have hot hands that would stay hot. A different impulse drove gamblers who lost. Sure that lady luck was due for a visit, they fell for the gambler’s fallacy and made riskier bets. As a result, the winners kept winning (even if the amounts they won were small) and the losers kept losing. Risky bets are less likely to pay off than safe ones. The gamblers changed their behaviours because of their feelings about streaks, which in turn perpetuated those streaks.
If behaviour influences luck, do people who think of themselves as lucky behave differently from the rest of us? A 2009 study co-authored by Maia Young assessed whether students believed in stable luck as a trait they themselves possessed. She found a relationship between the belief in stable luck (versus fleeting luck) and measures of achievement and motivation, including whether or not the students persisted at tasks or chose challenging ones to begin with. Lucky people, it seems, are go-getters. ‘You can see how someone who believes in stable luck will be more motivated to pick difficult goals and then stick with them. If you believe luck is this chance, fleeting luck that you can’t rely on because it ebbs and flows, you might be less motivated to stick with hard tasks, the challenging tasks,’ explains Young.
Lucky people might win at life, but their sunny outlooks could get them in trouble in Vegas
Young’s finding dovetails with the work of Richard Wiseman, a former magician who is now Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and author of the book The Luck Factor (2003). The best way to look at luck, Wiseman argues, is as a stable trait – not one that people are born with, but one they can cultivate. Wiseman searched for people who considered themselves consistently very lucky or unlucky until he gathered 400 subjects. He found that ‘lucky’ people are adept at creating and noticing chance opportunities (such as meeting an important businessman at a café), listen to their intuition, have positive expectations that create self-fulfilling prophesies, and have a relaxed and resilient attitude about life’s trials. Poor unlucky souls are more tense and anxious than lucky ones.
Wiseman broke down the tendencies of the lucky group into behavioural interventions such as getting people to imagine how things could have been worse when they were faced with misfortune or, more generally, asking them to ‘switch up your daily routine’. As a result, 80 per cent of the unlucky group reported that, after just a month, they were happier, more satisfied with their lives, and yes, luckier.
The more one ponders luck and the new insights into it, the more its paradoxes come cascading down, like the rows of cherries in a slot machine. Consider optimism: it was one of the key qualities of lucky people identified by Wiseman, and yet the online bettors in the study by University College London who were on a winning streak kept winning because of their pessimism. They played it safe. Wiseman’s lucky people might win at life, but their sunny outlooks could get them in trouble in Vegas.
Which is exactly what happened to Archie Karas. Just three weeks after he peaked at $40 million, he lost it all. His ‘lucky streak’ turned into a net loss of $50. In a sad coda, in 2013 Karas was charged with burglary, winning by fraudulent means and cheating at a blackjack table in Lakeside, California. But just this November, fortune smiled on him, slightly: he was placed on probation, escaping a potential three-year prison term. Things could always be worse.
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is a journalist and former features editor at Psychology Today. Her work has appeared in Discover and Scientific American Mind, among others. She is the author of Friendfluence (2013).