A few years ago ago my friend was offered a job in Sydney. After a lot of dithering about whether she was brave enough to leave her family and friends…not to mention her two cats…to live on the other side of the world, she decided to go for it.
She’d only been in Australia for a couple of weeks when a chance encounter changed her life for ever.
It was a sunny Saturday morning and she had popped out for a walk around her new neighbourhood when she saw a hot pink lacy skirt in the window of a shop. She tried it on and loved it so much she bought it and put it on immediately.
Walking down the street, a woman asked her where she’d got the skirt and they started talking. It turned out this woman had moved to Sydney six months earlier.
‘I can remember the moment so clearly,’ my friend remembers. ‘We were standing on a busy street and people kept bumping into us, but we didn’t move because we couldn’t stop talking…we had so much in common.
But that was only the beginning of her good luck. She went to lunch with her new friend and her friends.
‘I was shy about gatecrashing a lunch with people I didn’t know,’ she says. ‘But she twisted my arm and I went with her.
‘At the restaurant, I was introduced to a friend of hers from work. I knew in minutes that he was The One.
A couple of months later he had moved in with me and a year later we were married.’ She still lives in Sydney with her husband and young son.
She jokes that the secret to finding love, friends and happiness is to wear a bright pink skirt. But it seems the real secret of happiness is to go with the opportunities that life throws us…to be open to serendipity.
Serendipity is defined as a chance encounter or accident that leads to a happy…sometimes life-changing…conclusion. Without serendipity many of the most important discoveries would not have been made.
The microwave, vaccinations, X-rays, the Pill and penicillin…which was discovered when Alexander Fleming by chance noticed that mould in his Petri dish killed off the surrounding bacteria…are all examples.
Post-it notes, too, would not exist if a man who was trying to invent a strong adhesive didn’t accidentally make a very weak one.
But why do lucky accidents seem to happen to some people and not to others? And is there any way we can make ourselves experience more serendipity, or at least learn how to recognise and take advantage of it when it happens?
The SerenA project asked people to submit their stories to see if there were patterns to peoples’ experiences.
So far, stories include that of a woman who met the love of her life after getting on the wrong train, and a 91-year-old who achieved her dream of riding a motorbike after a chat with a Harley-Davidson-owning stranger in a cafe.
So what did the researchers find that all these stories had in common?
‘By looking for patterns, we’ve found that serendipity is more than an accident,’ says Dr Stephann Makri, who is working on the project. ‘While none of the people we interviewed engineered the opportunities that came their way, they all had two things in common.
‘First, they realised that an opportunity was being presented to them. Then, they seized the opportunity and took action.
‘When it comes to experiences such as walking down the road and bumping into someone you haven’t seen in years, who goes on to offer you a job or introduce you to the love of your life, several things need to happen.
‘First, you need to notice the old friend. Then you need to stop and talk to them, even though you might be busy or running late. Finally, you need to follow up on whatever might come out of that conversation.’
In short, serendipity involves an element of luck that is out of our control but you also have to have the wisdom to spot the opportunity and act on it.
The psychologist, Richard Wiseman, agrees. He has spent years researching serendipity, culminating in his book, The Luck Factor. He wanted to find out why some people seemed to always be in the right place at the right time.
Wiseman found that they were not luckier — just quicker to spot and seize opportunities.
In one experiment, he asked people to read a newspaper and tell him how many photographs were inside. He had secretly placed a message halfway through the newspaper that read ‘Stop counting — there are 43 photographs in this newspaper’.
‘It was staring everyone in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people spotted it,’ says Wiseman.
Why is this? ‘Unlucky people are generally more tense than lucky people and this anxiety disrupts their ability to notice the unexpected.
‘As a result, they miss opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. Lucky people, on the other hand, are more relaxed and open, which means they see what is there.’
So how can you be more open to serendipity?
Wiseman has a few tips. Be outgoing…the more people you are in touch with, the more chance encounters you are likely to have.
Be prepared to deviate from plans. Unlucky people hate to break their routine. Don’t be afraid of failure. Serendipity smiles on people who try new things, instead of worrying about what could go wrong.
Research is also looking into whether our increased reliance on technology is reducing serendipitous opportunities. Technology is making our lives more efficient, but it’s also making our world narrower, which is the enemy of serendipity.
There are, of course, exceptions. Twitter, Facebook and online dating can also throw people together unexpectedly, which reminds me of a friend’s experience.
She had been internet dating for almost a year and was about to give up when a man’s profile caught her attention.
‘One of the things he said in his profile was that he loved “those serendipitous events that make life interesting”.
The fact he spelled serendipitous correctly and used it in the correct context was enough to make me like him,’ she laughs. ‘We met up and it turned out he lived ten minutes away from me.
‘That was a year ago and we’re still going strong. I put our meeting down to serendipity. That and good spelling.
by Susan Floyd