Help me a fill a hole in my belief system
March 11, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Atheist/secular filter: How do non-religious people deal with good fortune and lucky breaks? I'm having trouble replacing the whole "God is looking out for me" concept of my youth with something more in line with my current belief system.

I have been an atheist for many years and do not consider this any sort of crisis of "unfaith," for lack of a better term. I do struggle to compartmentalize this one particular aspect of my belief system though, which may have been brought into sharper focus during the financial downturn and seeing many others struggle while my life continued to hum along pleasantly, with much seemingly inadvertent good luck thrown in along the way. When I was a kid I had this picture of God sitting on my shoulder and steering me along. The image has lingered long after I have rejected the idea of it intellectually. Has anyone been through something similar? I imagine there might be some good philosophical texts out there that address this sort of thing which I would be interested in discovering too. Thanks!
posted by the foreground to Religion & Philosophy (72 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Raised atheist from birth here:

The universe is a cruel and random place. Bad things happen to good people for no reason and bad people do bad things and don't suffer any consequences.

When something unexpectedly good happens to me it is because I am awesome.
posted by Oktober at 10:13 AM on March 11, 2010 [41 favorites]

As a secular humanist I don't believe in good fortune or lucky breaks. Life is life, it's not fair and sometimes shitty people get good stuff. That's not because they're fortunate or lucky. It just happens. By the same token, sometimes really good people seem to never catch a break. Again, just life being life. I do happen to believe that with hard work and being in the right place at the right time, you can make good things happen. Honestly, if I thought some all-knowing being was sitting on my shoulder guiding me and my life still sucked? I'd be pissed.
posted by cooker girl at 10:15 AM on March 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

I don't understand your problem. You had a streak of good luck. It happens. Live long enough and you'll have streaks of bad luck. I do believe a person can through disposition and behavior put themselves in more positions that yield "good luck" but that's about it. Just enjoy it, be thankful for it, and know that life's going to be full of the good and bad breaks.

You know, sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. Maybe you need an image of a ravenous bear always at your shoulder.
posted by xmutex at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's hard to tell what you're asking. Are you saying that, even though you're an atheist, you still can't help imagining that a supernatural being is responsible for good events in your life? If you have "rejected the idea of it intellectually," how is it causing you problems?
posted by k. at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I will quote Dr. Horrible:

"Everything happens..."

"Don't say for a reason."

"No, I'm just saying that everything happens."

That's pretty much it.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2010 [26 favorites]

You might be interested in the idea of karma. While not strictly areligious it doesn't require the idea of a higher power to "work" as it were. I've been atheist or non-religious since birth and the idea of luck to me is just that "oh hey neat, lucky!" I much prefer a universe that occasionally gives me nifty things [and yeah also takes them away or does bad things] for no reason whatsoever than thinking a nice person gave me things and then that nice person also took them away or hurt me.

And as an aside, you don't have to replace your way of thinking really, you're more than welcome to have a guardian angel or other sort of made up sekrit friend who helps you out in life, there's no real ruleset to how to do atheism, so while you're welcome to work on your own beliefs for whatever reaons, I hope you're not giving yourself a hard time over this relatively minor issue.
posted by jessamyn at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

When something good happens to me, I think, "I am fortunate to have received such good luck, because I could very well not have." If it's a goal I've worked toward, I think, "I am getting better at figuring out life."

When something bad happens, I think, "Time to try harder." If it's something that isn't my fault, I don't blame myself or a god. Just the way the cookie crumbles.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2010

I was raised religious but not with a particularly personal god (Jewish).

I would agree with Oktober except for the cruel part. If it is cruel, it has some order, just as if it is benevolent.

When something bad happens, it could be for many reasons, lack of previous planning, believing that things are worse than they are, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Similarly, when something good happens, it is often because I made good choices, I have a positive attitude and can recognize good when it happens or just stupid good things happen sometimes.

I believe that it is all pretty random. If you haven't read Dawkins yet, it is a must.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:20 AM on March 11, 2010

The world is a vast and mysterious place, where all kinds of bizarre, unlikely and random things happen daily. I look at the wonder all around me and remember that the odd unexpected awesome thing in my life is less unlikely than, say, a platypus.
posted by workerant at 10:20 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid I had this picture of God sitting on my shoulder and steering me along.

Read "Fooled by Randonmess" by Niklas Taleb Nassim (?). What you perceive as luck (or worse skill) is simply a throw of dice landing in your favor.
posted by three blind mice at 10:20 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Read John Allen Paulos's Irreligion.

Or, really, read his other books -- Innumeracy or A Mathemetician Reads the Newspaper -- even though they're not mainly about religion.

People's intuitions about probabilities and coincidences are wrong. Assuming for the sake of argument that god doesn't exist, we should expect coincidences and good/bad luck to happen to people.

I do struggle to compartmentalize this one particular aspect of my belief system though, which may have been brought into sharper focus during the financial downturn and seeing many others struggle while my life continued to hum along pleasantly, with much seemingly inadvertent good luck thrown in along the way.

Is this supposed to be an argument for or against God?
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:21 AM on March 11, 2010

There's no such thing as good fortune or lucky breaks, but they can still be useful tools for understanding--humans are wired for pattern recognition.
posted by box at 10:22 AM on March 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Well, in advance of clarification, I'll add that it might help to imagine that the same being who makes good things happen must also be responsible for the bad stuff.

Here's an argument for that position: suppose all good things came from God but misfortunes were just accidental. Then note that preventing misfortunes is one of the best things that God could do—so if God were controlling only the good things, he would necessarily control everything. (I'm no theologian...I'm sure real ones have thought about this more thoroughly.)
posted by k. at 10:22 AM on March 11, 2010

How do non-religious people deal with good fortune and lucky breaks?

By accepting that good and bad luck are just that, and not the result of a spooky, ghostly being whose relationship to the laws of cause and effect and probability are somewhat ill-defined.

Funnily enough, good and bad luck happen to deeply religious people too. Mostly, they're at a loss to explain why bad luck happens to them apart from quoting that it's God's/Allah's etc will, or that the price of having a god is that he doesn't decide all events everywhere (even if he could).

In summary? Don't worry about it. The burden of explanation - if one can even call it that - is on religious people to give a meaningful explanation for why vicars' saintly young wives are struck down by cancer and why feckless, godless cads still manage to win the lotto.

Personally, I'm much happier with accepting that I'm a small cog in a larger wheel than outsourcing my anxiety to a ghostly being.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:24 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I maintain an awareness practice based in Zen.

But I also play poker. And that, more than anything else, has taught me that good stuff and bad stuff happen. Sometimes you get long streaks of one and not the other.

The more I pay attention, the truer that gets.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:26 AM on March 11, 2010

To a lottery winner, it was so amazingly improbable that they would win the lottery that it seems that some kind of supernatural force (God, destiny, karma, whatever) must have been at work.

To an objective outside observer, it was very likely that someone would win the lottery, so no supernatural force needs to be invoked to explain why a certain person won the lottery.

Some fraction of people will be born in developed countries, some fraction of people will have and keep good-paying jobs, some fraction of people will not be adversely effected by the current economic situation. To such a person, it may seem like they are exceptionally fortunate and/or blessed, but to an outside observer, they are just another statistic—outside the mean, perhaps, but not so far outside the mean that they can't be explained by normal statistical deviation.

The subjective nature of consciousness very strongly leads me to believe that events which happen to me are more significant than events which happen to other people, but there's no rational basis for that belief.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:28 AM on March 11, 2010 [14 favorites]

Radiolab did an episode on randomness. Jad and Robert have a discussion about a golfball landing on a blade of grass that might be helpful. Basically someone hits a golfball onto a section of course where there's 1 million blades of grass. The chance of the golfball landing on any one individual balde of grass is 1 in a million, but the chance of the golfball landing on any blade of grass is 100%. I mean it had to land somewhere right? But to the individual grass blade it's like WHOA! What are the odds?!
posted by edbles at 10:29 AM on March 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Personally I never thought of 'Luck' as a religious thing, so after becoming atheist, my idea of lucky or unlucky hasn't really taken a hit. I mean Luck just means that good things are happening to you for no particular reason, right?

Enjoy your lucky break! Make the most of it.
posted by Caravantea at 10:33 AM on March 11, 2010

Follow up:

Thanks for the answers so far, and sorry for not being more clear:

What drove me to becoming more of a secular oriented person was the intellectual satisfaction of it vs. the established religion I was raised in. The big picture view made sense to me. I have read some Dawkins and Taleb actually, and they are quite good at explaining the big picture stuff, the "randomness" etc. What is harder to grasp for me is:

What you perceive as luck (or worse skill) is simply a throw of dice landing in your favor.

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level. Of course it is a good problem to have, sort of the opposite of religious person having their belief tested by bad things happening to them. Perhaps it has something to do in particular with being raised in a religion and then leaving it? Or maybe I'm just too young to have had a stretch of real bad luck, who knows. I hope that clarifies some of where I'm coming from with the original question...
posted by the foreground at 10:35 AM on March 11, 2010

Oh shoot, I hit Post too soon. If you want an interesting book, try 'The Drunkard's Walk - How Randomness Rules our Lives.' It's a great book about statistics. And there's a section on how they've studied how music and books become popular...mostly by chance. It's really fascinating, and may help you shake the feeling of a guiding force.

(And don't be scared off by the fact that it's a statistics book. I'm hopeless at all things math, and this was still consistently engaging and easy to understand.)
posted by Caravantea at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2010

Whatever happens, you can always write a little story to go along with it to make the universe more comprehensible. Even randomness is a story (or, if you're John Cage, a piece of music.) How about, if good things happen to you, God is trying to win you over to believe in him. It's just a sales demo. Don't you fall for it!
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:37 AM on March 11, 2010

You know how shit happens?

Well, sometimes, good shit happens.

Seriously, though, the books about randomness that people have mentioned might help.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:38 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level.

Best. Confirmation bias. Ever.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:38 AM on March 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

There are a couple of mentions of "the universe" here, and perhaps the ACTUAL universe is a good starting place for the concepts you describe. I recently moved to a really remote location and I can see the stars really well-- there's nothing like watching a couple of astronomy programs on the Discovery Channel (Neil deGrasse Tyson is great at making them accessible), then looking up at the night sky to make one feel "right-sized", which is to say, very small. It's difficult for me to imagine that things happen "to me" or "for me" when I have this kind of perspective. These kinds of documentaries help me remember that much more goes on in the universe than good or bad things, which are relevant only to those who are deeming them as such. Things just happen. And as an insignificant speck in the big picture, I'm certainly not so special that they happen to or for me.

This may not seem as though it would be useful or productive in daily life, but I find that it is. A little humility has helped bring the questions and the self-searching into perspective, and has gone a long way in making my life much simpler, and pretty nice.
posted by mireille at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Everything happens for a reason. But the reasons are so ridiculously complex that they are incomprehensible, and most of the time they have little or nothing to do with you personally. They can, however, have a lot to do with complex sets of circumstances in which you find yourself.

It's not "luck." It's a combination of events or circumstances that work together for your benefit - and even that is only true if you happen to take action to benefit from them.

Don't look for luck. Look for extraordinarily complex causation.
posted by The World Famous at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

maybe I'm just too young to have had a stretch of real bad luck, who knows.

That's it. Don't worry, you'll catch up.
posted by Miko at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

My mom always told me that, "You make your own luck." And, Woody Allen says, "99% of success is just showing up." Maybe you have more to do with your own "good fortune" than you think? In fact, it's very possible that the best "fortune" in your life is the ability to recognize how good you've got it.

Please remain awesome!
posted by Citrus at 10:42 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I went to a mentalist-show-for-skeptics. He said: Coincidences happen. If they didn't, that'd be WEIRD.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:42 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Someone once told me long ago that you make your own luck. It isn't something granted for your good deeds but something that is the result of your own actions. I think there is some truth to that. I like this equation the best, hard work + perseverance = luck.
posted by cazoo at 10:42 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years.

My husband, who is agnostic, perceives his frequent good luck as a result of his positive perspective on life. I don't think he is particularly lucky compared to the average person--I think he just puts a positive spin on everything. He is an eternal optimist. Maybe the same is true for you.
posted by Lobster Garden at 10:43 AM on March 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

I still don't understand why the fact that lots of good things have happened to you is so great (assuming you're right that you have received a lot of good luck, and setting aside the "maybe you actually worked hard for it" angle).

What about the other people, people with bad luck? Even if you can rationalize away some of that as the result of their bad exercise of will, how about people who are born in miserable conditions that you couldn't possibly have brought on themselves? Also, it's hard to argue that people are at all deserving of natural disasters like Katrina or Haiti. (If you really wanted to, you could argue there was some element of human choice on the part of some residents in not being sufficiently prepared, but that's relatively minor, and it certainly doesn't apply to babies or children.)

Your view is very common, but it just seems like straight-up self-centeredness. (Sorry to be judgmental, but you asked for our counterarguments.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:44 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lately, I've been thinking about it like this: human beings are generally pretty good at adapting to change, good or bad. Our evolutionary success depends on it. So when we're thrown life's random challenges and something else comes along right after that, we adapt to it and then look for causation or a reason why it happened. If we adapt well, we see it as good luck and a certain type of person will want to see that proof of fate or that somebody up there is looking out for them. Same goes for the reverse: bad adaptation = bad fate. I guess my point is that we tend to undervalue our role in reacting to semi-random events in our lives and overvalue the idea that there is a logic or supernatural reason why they're happening to us.
posted by ga$money at 10:44 AM on March 11, 2010

I wonder if the reason you're uncomfortable with this is not because you want an explanation for your success, but because you want to be protected from failure?

If that's the case, visualize putting your trust in yourself rather than some cosmic guide behind the wheel. Some things are outside your control, and bad things may happen, but if you believe in your ability to handle them and recover from them, it helps.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:45 AM on March 11, 2010

Or maybe I'm just too young to have had a stretch of real bad luck, who knows.

This is entirely possible. Nothing really bad ever happened to me until I was 31. I mean, I had a crappy childhood but that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with my parents. But when I was 31, I had a traumatic miscarriage. Did I do anything to "deserve" it? Of course not. It just happened; fetal anomaly, whatever. Then when I was 35, my ENT found a tumor in my salivary glad that had to be removed. The recovery from the surgery was horrible. Again, did I do anything to deserve it? Nope. Loved ones have died, people have hurt me, things have Gone Wrong. But I still maintain that that's just life.

The older you get, the more likely it is that "bad" things will happen. People you love will get sick and die. You might get sick. You might lose your job. But it's not luck, it's not fortune, it just is. For now, enjoy the ride. Enjoy the good things you have, and keep working toward making good choices.
posted by cooker girl at 10:46 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

"This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level."

You're doing something right. If you don't know what, specifically, it is that you're doing, try to figure it out so you can keep doing it. Maybe it's not something you're doing on purpose, maybe it's some circumstances that happened upon you, so think about those circumstances and what led up to you being involved in them. There is so much in the world that we can't understand or control so it's good to try to figure out a way to understand and control as much about our lives as possible, instead of handing it over entirely to a made up imaginary being whose ways are entirely mysterious.
posted by amethysts at 10:47 AM on March 11, 2010

You could look into Explanatory Styles, which breaks down into this sentence "When something goes right, who do you think caused it? When something goes wrong, who do you think caused it?"

Positive people believe they caused the positive things to happen because I'm awesome, but the negative things that happen in their life were caused by other people.

Negative people believe that they caused the negative things in their life to happen because I suck, and the positive things are out of their control.

In other words, when good things happen or bad things happen - different people notice it in different ways.

Also, luck is a personality trait and can be learned. It just may be that you're a "lucky person" - but because of your outlook on life & ability to see opportunities others miss & not because someone is sitting on your shoulder.
posted by MesoFilter at 10:49 AM on March 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

More than dumb luck, I think is that the world is a great place, and that in the majority people are good. When good things happen to you, be happy and pay it forward.
posted by mercredi at 10:52 AM on March 11, 2010

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years.

I kinda know what you mean by this. Much of the good things in my life have seem to come from completely random flukes, on the level of "I met my husband because I went to a particular dinner and sat next to a particular person," or, "I found out about AWESOME THING because random person I barely know mentioned it."

Having been as close to raised atheist as is meaningful, I never even really had any kind of supernatural/theological framework to put that in, so I can't really help you with that end. But I can tell you that the main thing I've tried to take from what, by my lights, is an incredible string of lucky flukes, is humility.

Humility more or less in the "There but for the grace of God" sense, minus the God bit. I think looking at it that way has at least helped make me a less judgmental person: I could just as easily have wound up staying in the craphole town I grew up in, and that my childhood friends are still stuck in, had specific things not cut my way. I could just as easily have wound up in the same ruts as some of the people around and close to me had I not had less obvious, better options shown to me, largely by random chance. Essentially, just keeping in mind that a lot of the good in my life is there for reasons largely out of my control helps keep things in perspective.

Dunno if that's helpful to you or not. Just some thoughts on what you might get out of this "problem."
posted by PMdixon at 10:54 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best. Confirmation bias. Ever.

Yep, I was just about to suggest confirmation bias as well, in addition to my previous comments about natural statistical variation. I consider myself a very fortunate person as well—better off than most humans on this planet—but in addition to statistical variation, my natural optimism tends to remember and emphasize the good and overlook and downplay the bad. Especially with cup-half-full type of stuff which could be considered good or bad. I was in a three-car accident which did quite a bit of damage to my car several years ago, but I wasn't injured. Was I unlucky to have been in a car accident, or lucky to not have been injured? I view it as lucky, but that's more my personal outlook on life and not based on any objective criteria. I broke my leg a few years ago—unlucky to have broken my leg, or lucky that in 38 years that's the most serious injury I've ever had, and lucky that with today's medical care I made a complete recovery, and lucky that I had the medical insurance which allowed me to get that care at all? You can guess which side of it I tend to fall on, but it's not an objective evaluation.

That's not to say you should try to evaluate your life more objectively, if you're emphasizing the good and deemphasizing the bad. I'm not going to change my outlook just because I recognize it's not objective. As the humanist Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:59 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Most people not only believe they are the center of the universe, but they also need to believe that God thinks that too. The trick is to accept it as purely a function of your own mind, which is hard to do, because we have a deep need to believe in a big Other who knows us, and who registers our actions, guaranteeing their meaning. It is not that without God, everything seems meaningless. Things are meaningful to us, so we invent some other all-knowing being to project meaning-making on to, who can bear the crushing weight of meaning.

Many atheists are confused about this, they think that a judgmental God was invented to control people and make them feel like someone is watching them. But really, belief in God's judgment spares us from the truth that our moral judgments are ours and we are fully responsible for them, which is why secular people are extremely concerned about not being judgmental. With no God to believe in who really know what is moral, fully assuming our own moral judgments is an unbearable burden.

But this is what it means to be an atheist - to bear that weight, to fully assume your own belief that you are the center of the universe (or moral judgments), without imputing them to a nonexistent Other who believes or judges for you.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:00 AM on March 11, 2010 [9 favorites]

Another secular humanist (Always have been, probably always will be.) chiming in here.

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level ... Perhaps it has something to do in particular with being raised in a religion and then leaving it?

Yes and no. Being raised in a religion means that most likely you were raised in a more substantial community than those without a religious upbringing. (Bolded because I feel that's the keyword here.) This community is what is in your favor, as it provides you greater access to resources and support on many levels than someone who is isolated. It doesn't mean that you're individually lucky, it just means that the biases one encounters through social standing, income level, etc. are slanted more in your favor.

I experienced the benefits of being in this kind of community my early 20's, so I can see how that dropping away after a lifetime could be jarring.

Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey's aside regarding poker is a good way to discern how lucky you are over a period of time and on a purely individual basis.
posted by greenland at 11:02 AM on March 11, 2010

In light of the precise wording of your question, I think I should add to my previous answer. I am not actually a non-religious person. I'm a religious person who does not consider the possibility that something (good or bad) that happens to me or anyone else is the result of divine intervention unless there's a pretty compelling reason to suspect it.

I would suggest distancing yourself from the all or nothing view that you were apparently brought up with. Even if someone believes in an interventionist deity, it is not necessary to believe that everything is divine intervention. Whereas religious people often "count their blessings" in order to recognize acts of divine providence in their lives, I would suggest that one of your talents is your ability to "count your luck" without realizing that's what you're doing.

You could try counting your unlucky moments - making an effort to really recognize all the bad things that happen to you that balance out the good. But that probably won't make you a happier person, and it might even make you start to feel like your life isn't actually as good as it is.

Just accept the fact that you apparently have a very positive outlook on life that might even open opportunities for you that cause good things in life to snowball. Be happy about that. Don't think of it as having some divine or mystic causation unless you see some compelling reason to suspect it. And even then, don't think of it as luck or divine unless you inspect it very carefully first.

Also, the odds of a coin toss are the same regardless of the outcome of previous tosses. The chances of you having "good luck" today are unaffected by whether or not you had "good luck" yesterday or every previous day for 100 years.
posted by The World Famous at 11:02 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you seen A Serious Man? It's about someone whose luck is trending in the opposite direction, but it deals with a lot of the same issues you're struggling with.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:09 AM on March 11, 2010

The self-centeredness approach may be helpful, but it supposes that if God is watching out for you, then he must also be watching out for everyone else. In my experience this is not something that all religious people believe. (God tends not to care much about members of other religions, for example.)

It seems like your worry is this: you are just so lucky that bad things never ever happen to you, so you suspect that all this luck couldn't possibly be an accident.

If that interpretation is right, I suggest that your problem is optimism: all you have to do to refute your belief is wait!

Yes, I'm something of a pessmist. But to put a more positive spin on it, if the worst thing you have to worry about is why you are so incredibly lucky, you're doing pretty well.
posted by k. at 11:12 AM on March 11, 2010

I say, "Thanks, universe!" and go on my way.
posted by Billegible at 11:18 AM on March 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level.

In a universe of seven billion outcomes, some are going to consistently break even. Some will break even by quite a bit. That doesn't mean you can rely on your breaking even in the future, it just means that past results make sense if you consider the infinite win/loss game that's being played every day.

If you roll a dice seven billion times, you're going to get strings of results that are improbable (like 10 sixes in a row), but that doesn't mean there's anything more to it than probability.

It's also quite possible that those who see themselves as lucky or unlucky suffer from confirmation bias; their focus on confirming what they already know leads them to ignore situations which disprove their theory.
posted by Hiker at 11:20 AM on March 11, 2010

How can you tell that what you're having is good luck?
If you're thinking of things as "this awesome opportunity X fell in my lap, how lucky!" that's better than if X opportunity had failed to land in your lap... but what about opportunites A, B, C, D, and E, which skipped right over you?? Nobody has everything. What if opportunity Y fell in your lap? That's lucky!! What it opportunity Y turned out to bankrupt you? That's unlucky! What if while doing opportunity Y you met the love of your life? That's lucky!!
My point being, you're happy with your life, and you're defining things that happen to you as "good luck". It's optimism, as k. (and others) have said. Why did bad thing happen to your friend but not to you? Is that luck, or does your friend have a habit of disorganization, which led to not balancing her checkbook, which led to shady business opportunity Y, and now she's having terrible luck in a bad situation? It's skill, as many people have said.
posted by aimedwander at 11:24 AM on March 11, 2010

Luck is randomness, plus awareness, plus preparation.

Seriously, you can make your own luck. The recipe is randomness, plus awareness, plus preparation. That's been shown in lab experiments: people who believe that they tend to be lucky pay more attention to the opportunities hiding in the random events in their life, and as a result they are luckier.

It's the most powerful virtuous circle I know of (a virtuous circle is the opposite of vicious circle.)
posted by gmarceau at 11:25 AM on March 11, 2010

Stuff happens. The meaning of this Stuff can be socially constructed as luck, shit, karma, life, the universe, Gaia, fate, God, The Force, etc. as you choose. You as a social being will construct this meaning, reflect upon it, learn from it, and act accordingly following the contextualized meaning of your chosen social construction.
posted by kch at 11:27 AM on March 11, 2010

I'm an atheist and i don't beleive in luck.

When good things happen without a pattern, it's a random coincidence.

When good things keep happening, over and over again, it's because you've done things to make it happen, or have put yourself in a position to be able to beneift from circumstances.

For example: you apply for and get a really good job you're excited about. Lucky? Nope. Good jobs go to people who were smart enough to look for them, and who had built up the right qualifications, and who behaved in a way that made people want to provide good references.

Pretty much everything except the lottery can be explained in a way that has nothing to do with randomness.
posted by Kololo at 11:32 AM on March 11, 2010

I'm an agnostic who spent 15 years in Catholic school, so I understand the knee-jerk reaction to invoke God in times of high emotion (earthquakes, scary airplanes and involuntary exclamations of "Thank God!"). But we've been gifted with the power of reason, so when you react with a thought that goes against your beliefs, reason it out for yourself. Think about the valid reasons why you have the ingrained thoughts you have and why you choose to believe differently now. Eventually you won't need to deliberately reconcile your thoughts.

I find it pretty easy these days to give thanks for good things that happen in my life without needing to attribute it to God. I can look at a beautiful landscape and be in awe and feel so thankful to be a part of this world. I can see a newborn and marvel at how amazing it is that we can create life. I can have something great happen to me and be grateful that circumstances were such that I benefited from the result. Gratitude doesn't need to be directed at an entity.
posted by cecic at 11:32 AM on March 11, 2010

Surely you didn't believe that every time you flipped a coin, god had predetermined the outcome. How could any deity have kept track of or even planned all of that for an eternity of billions and billions of people?
posted by 2oh1 at 11:32 AM on March 11, 2010

As someone who tries to be a basically good person, I am still human and far from perfect. That said, I have gone through some pretty horrible stuff in the last few years. A string of things related in effect but independent in cause - birth injuries, hysterectomy and thus infertile, only child got brain cancer and died. I find it to be a lot more comforting (and honest) to accept that bad things happen to good people at random, then to imagine "God" has forsaken me, or is teaching me a lesson, or is punishing me, or is handing out random challenges but (depending on who you ask) will never dish out more than I can take.

Obviously, not everything is always random. Decisions have consequences. It is, in my opinion, emotionally healthy to examine good and bad events with an eye to whether good or bad actions caused them. That is perhaps how we accept agency and learn from our mistakes. While the idea is held by many people that everything has an outward cause, that karma (or God) always rewards good people and punishes bad people whether here or in the next/afterlife, it is just a fact of life that good actions sometimes go unrewarded and bad ones unpunished.
posted by bunnycup at 11:33 AM on March 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

P.S. I'm not an Atheist. I feel no need to replace a religion with a nonreligion. I don't believe in any of the various gods that various groups of people believe in. I just believe in me. And I believe in you too, until you give me a reason not to.

Best of luck finding your own understanding of a belief system that works for you. Even being an atheist is conforming to the beliefs of others. You don't have to do that. Believe in yourself and treat others in a manner that makes you proud. In doing so, you'll find that you often create your own luck without actually trying to.

posted by 2oh1 at 11:40 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Cynic/skeptical humanist point of view -- I think your awkwardness about the hole in (you call it belief system, I'd call it perceived reality) may well be the very reason for the existence of religious beliefs. Couple that to the pattern recognition ability already mentioned, and it quickly becomes a religious system.

But that does not solve a whole lot, right? Just "dealing with the randomness" does not fit all minds equally well. I consider myself a very rational being, yet sometimes it is just hard to shrug off something that feels like luck, good or bad, where probability or chance would be better terms. Maybe you just have to stew in the juices of your world view misfits for a while to find a good perspective. Stew in it, keep an open mind and don't let your senses be blunted by ordinary life, at least not all the time.
The outcome will be very personal. Book? Montaigne's Essays. One at a time. On your bedside table. For years.
posted by gijsvs at 11:43 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

the foreground: This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level.

Others have suggested reading up on randomness and random processes. This is an amazingly good idea. Think performing of a long series of coin flips. It's highly unlikely to observe a long, unbroken string of heads. Now think of everyone on the planet walking around flipping their own personal coin. Each one is highly unlikely to observe a long, unbroken string of heads. But given all of the people performing the same test, it's not that surprising if one or two of them observe a long, unbroken string of heads. It's surprising to that person, sure---and that's what you're struggling with---that you're the one who keeps turning up heads, almost as if by magic. Each time you flip, it comes up heads. And you start to think that it's compelled to. And the longer it goes on, the more unlikely it seems to you that the process is actually random. It starts to appear more likely that you've got yourself a weighted coin, or even a coin with heads on both sides.

Check the coin---does it seem a fair coin to you? I ask in seriousness, because it may not be. You may be more likely than others to enjoy good breaks because you're well liked, you're smart, you see opportunities more readily than others, you're good looking or tall and so others are more naturally well disposed toward you, you have a stronger safety net and a little more resilience than others, you have more assets than most, you got a better start than others, you're more socially well connected, you accidentally followed a career path that is more insulated from the economic craziness than many others, .... But even with a weighted coin---are you able to see the random process in which you are participating? Can you see that you're still flipping the coin? And can you perceive the ever-present possibility that it can still land tails up?
posted by dilettanti at 11:43 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Someone once told me long ago that you make your own luck. It isn't something granted for your good deeds but something that is the result of your own actions. I think there is some truth to that. I like this equation the best, hard work + perseverance = luck.

Tell that to the person who lost her only child to brain cancer!!!! (actually, please please don't).

There's lots and lots of randomness and good streaks and bad streaks and unfairness. I'm struggling with this question myself right now because lots of good stuff has been happening and when that happens, I get this "other shoe" feeling or start to believe that I don't deserve good things. I hate the idea of believing that good things happen because "I deserve" them because then it means that the bad things are deserved too and I can't make any sense of it. And I hate the rich entitled brats who justify their position by saying they deserve it and therefore they can ignore the needy.

So it's the "deserving" issue I find problematic because I see lots of wonderful people have horrible luck and vice versa. So, I try to remind myself that as a human, I deserve good things as much or as little as anyone else-- so I shouldn't feel guilty or bad for good things happening but just do my best to be good to others so that I can share good things and therefore make the random badness a little better and things a little more fair.
posted by Maias at 11:53 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I too have learned a lot about luck and randomness from playing poker. Most people radically underestimate the variance from the norm that one can encounter. Streaks can be amazingly persistent. There's no reason to think that you will catch up and encounter your fair share of misery. The truly unfortunate certainly don't get a fair share of good luck. And I'm not talking about those born in deep poverty. Check out this obituary (MeFi post). So far, you're like the soldier charging up the hill taking a path between the bullets.

Nassim Taleb is good on this subject.
posted by BigSky at 11:56 AM on March 11, 2010

Stop trying to discern patterns in the workings of (random) events. That's all there is. The brain is a pattern-finding machine keeping itself busy.

That said, consciously minimize risks of ending up in situations that could, randomly, be dangerous or disadvantageous. In other words, do a bit of action-reaction and consequence thinking. Short: don't be an idiot.

Cultivate friendships, keep an open mind and open eyes; be inclusive, and you'll have more "luck" than other people.
posted by flippant at 11:57 AM on March 11, 2010

Well, I'm a religious adherent who doesn't look at circumstances the way you did - that is, I don't view good fortune as being indicative of God's favor or bad fortune as being indicative of God's judgment.

As I see it circumstances are circumstances: a durable sense of meaning must transcend circumstances or else your sense of meaning in life is a slave to your circumstances. This is the same for you as it is for me: just in my case a transcendent sentience figures into the equation of meaningfulness whereas in yours it does not. I say, focus on how you find and define meaning in life, and this issue will take care of itself.

For what it's worth, when I find myself dwelling too much on good fortune and bad fortune, I am usually really trying to hold onto some sort of unjustified magical hope that I can escape misfortune, which is of course not consistently or universally true for anyone. Even if you lead a remarkably gentle life, you know, life ends. People you love will die. You will die. You will get sick in the meantime. Avoiding major health problems at age 22 is not particularly exceptional good fortune. Avoiding major health problems at age 102 is extraordinarily unlikely but ask a 22 year-old with say Crohn's disease whether they would want to change places with a 102 year old who was perfectly healthy (what amazing luck!) and they are going to say no. The only way to live with the vagaries of circumstances is to live in the moment and not dwell on what might or might not: deal with what you've actually got to deal with.

Beyond that, "chance favors the prepared mind." Deal with good luck by making the most of it.
posted by nanojath at 12:19 PM on March 11, 2010

Did the melon come to me because God loves me? Because I deserve it? Even though I don't deserve it?

Answer: The melon tastes good. Yummy!
posted by amtho at 12:23 PM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid I had this picture of God sitting on my shoulder and steering me along.... [good luck] happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years.

Lifelong atheist here who has had similar feelings.

One additional factor that I think hasn't been mentioned yet: there are a number of occasions in my past where if my 'luck' had gone the other way, I'd be dead and unable to ponder the question of what luck is. To some extent this is true of everyone who has ever ridden in a car or an airplane or stepped into a shower or really done anything that carries any risk at all of serious accident.

So in a way the coin actually is weighted in your favor, purely by virtue of you still being around making coin tosses. More or less the anthropic principle on an individual scale.
posted by ook at 12:25 PM on March 11, 2010

Keep in mind that your attributing good things to good luck is, at the extreme, akin to right-wing types who can't see that the success they've had in life has not been their own creation, and that they owe something to society for it. You were born with loving parents (I assume) who valued education, in a country where you had enough food, physical security and access to education that you could take advantage of your natural gifts. The circumstances of your birth were certainly luck, but after that a million factors conspired to let good things happen to you. It's not all random. Keep that in mind.

To answer your question, I think that part of not believing in god is trying to think about the world in a whole different way than, as you acknowledge, religious people are trained to do. Religion plays off our innate desire to see pattern and agency where there is none, as well as a desire rooted in our morality to imagine that bad things are the just rewards of bad people. In reality, no such agency exists. When something good happens, just be thankful that you were in a position for it to happen to you, for all sorts of reasons, and keep in the back of your mind that we should try to create a society where lucky things can happen to more people, and that where people who have bad luck don't have their lives ruined because of it.
posted by Dasein at 12:27 PM on March 11, 2010

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level.

It's human nature to wish to process your life as a narrative and find motifs and themes to support it. Though not a psychologist, I'd say this could be explained through normal expected psychology. I think it's healthy to recognize that this self-narrative is whats going on here. I'd reckon that you tend to process events as an optimist. Be thankful you're not a pessimist, terrible shit is always happening to those people. ;) People can loose perspective in the "story" of their life, and a little reality check is healthy.

I think one of the most freeing concepts of non-theism is the fact that you own your good deeds and fortunes, not a deity. For every good thing there is a cause and effect. Why did it happen to break to your fortune? Because A led to B which led to C, which is great for you, but does not have greater meaning than 2+2=4. Maybe you had nothing to do with A and B. Maybe you worked hard for A and B. Either way A and B are the reason for C, not your fate being controlled by a god, a lucky rabbits foot, or because it fits in nicely with the narrative you've built for your life.

I think the question to ask is "What are you going to do with C?" rather than "Why did C happen to me?" What can you make out of good or bad situations? You have the power to change your fate, not a god. Are you being the person you want to be?
posted by fontophilic at 12:46 PM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you considered taking credit for your good luck? You've haven't given any examples of things you consider lucky, but there's a difference between statistical anomalies and creating your own good fortune. For example, if you feel "lucky" when you get a great job, that's not luck (or at least not all luck) -- that was your skill, initiative, networking, whatever. You did that. If you're surrounded by people you like, you had a big part in attracting and keeping those people around by merit of who you have striven to be. If people are always nice to you, it's probably because you seem like a nice person, or they know you're appreciative, that sort of thing. That has very little to do with luck.

If you're talking about winning the lottery kind of luck, well, yes, that's lucky for the individual that wins it (though statistically someone had to). But even a lot of things in the category of "unexpected good fortune" aren't luck so much as being open to opportunity -- and I don't mean that in some wonky The Secret way, I mean that when someone offers you an opportunity you take it. You think being offered the opportunity is lucky, but people are offered opportunities all the time. It's not that unusual. The difference is that "unlucky" people don't take the opportunities offered, often because they think of all the reasons they can't do something instead of just doing it anyway. (I think there was even a MeFi post about this semi-recently.) If you're not like that, then it's not luck when you get these opportunities, your perspective on them is just more optimistic than others' perspective. That's something you should take credit for.

Anyway, it still may seem that every now and then, something inexplicably good or bad happens. I've never really felt the need to attribute either to anything; part of being atheist, I think, is being comfortable with the idea that things can happen for no real reason -- if you can't take credit for the luck, like you were the guy who got the free t-shirt from the t-shirt cannon at a concert, then it was random. There isn't another explanation that wouldn't get into silly territory. Randomness certainly makes bad things a lot easier to deal with, since you're not wracked with grief about how bad things happen to people who don't deserve it and that sort of thing. I'd never even considered that good things would be something that one has to emotionally "deal with" though. Generally, when good things happen to me I just feel glad because I know there's no rule or anyone looking out for me -- any day I don't die is pretty lucky, really, since other people did.

If you're feeling some kind of guilt about what you perceive to be exceptional luck -- like "why me and not others, when I'm already so lucky?" -- then you might be happier just doing something to improve the lives of others than trying to make up new ways of thinking about your luck. I try to give away a bit of my money every month, and volunteer.
posted by Nattie at 1:41 PM on March 11, 2010

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years.

Not trying to start shit here, but is it possible you're privileged? I mean looking at myself, part of the reason I'm "lucky" is because I've had a lot of good breaks mainly because of my background, my race, my family's finances, my nationality and possibly my gender. So things that seems like "oh hey contrasted to other people I've been really fortunate with my health" for example, can be somewhat attributed to having healthy parents, who grew up with good medical care and who gave me good medical care and raised me believing in the necessity of things like medical insurance. I got to do a lot of fun travelling because I didn't have to work my ass off right out of high school [or out of college]. This meant that neat things happened to me. I can go lots of places and interact with lots of different people because people aren't pre-judging me due to my ethnicity.

Again, I know you're looking for more of a moral stance here, but I'd argue that in the absence of external supernatural/unknowable forces it may be a good idea to look at what we DO know and realize that no matter how invisible some of these things are, they lay a lot more groundwork for our lives than we may know. Of course, people do great things despite odds being stacked against them and many people take their privilege and squander it or whatever, but it may be useful to look at this sort of perspective in your search for meaning. Even though there's a lot of guilt associated with it, understanding privilege can be really freeing in a way too.
posted by jessamyn at 1:43 PM on March 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

When in doubt, resort to math. Law of averages covers everything.
posted by medea42 at 1:44 PM on March 11, 2010

"It's almost enough to make you believe in God", is said somewhat tongue in cheek in my atheist household when discussing some unbelievably awesome shit (well, really, only when we talk about how awesome our kids are). I don't have any hangups about using the expression because I never had the God baggage to lose (read, born and raised atheist), but also because it just fits the sentiment.

There's no shame in using God as a metaphor.
posted by ellenaim at 1:46 PM on March 11, 2010

Spock: Random chance seems to have operated in our favor.
Bones: In plain non-Vulcan English, we've been lucky.
Spock: I believe I said that, Doctor.
posted by zadcat at 1:58 PM on March 11, 2010

By working her butt off, a family member found a wonderful, desirable, creative job of the kind that many young people aspire to, right out of college, which eventually led to another phenomenal job. One day, two talented young people showed up, asking me for all kinds of information about how my family member got her first awesome job. I told them exactly how that had happened--hard work, persistence, having a great portfolio totally ready to go on a moment's notice. I told them the name of the company--I had no contact names--and sent them off with a "Good luck."

Shortly after that, I mentioned the name of the same outfit to a friend whose talented son was looking for a job in the same field. Her son sent off a letter, a resume, and portfolio right away and got himself a phenomenal job within a couple weeks. The earlier two? They never got their ***t together, and a year later were scrabbling in part-time jobs. So was it good luck that job seeker #3 got a great job or bad luck that job seekers #1 & #2 didn't?
posted by Elsie at 2:52 PM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

This happens over and over and over again in my favor, for years and years. I don't really know how to cope with it on a more personal, intellectual level.

Enjoy It While It Lasts.
posted by smartypantz at 4:40 PM on March 11, 2010

My dad always told me that there are two things you never have to apologize for in life: being good and being lucky.

Just run with it, big guy.
posted by kryptonik at 10:15 AM on March 12, 2010

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