A Little Happier: Good Luck, Bad Luck — How Do You Know?

As I’ve often mentioned, I love all teaching stories, koans, parables, aphorisms, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, and the like.

This story is one of my mother’s favorite teaching stories.

A farmer had a horse, and the horse ran away, and the neighbors said, “What bad luck!” And the farmer said, “How do you know?”

And then the horse returned, with a second horse, and the neighbors said, “What good luck!” And the farmer said, “How do you know?”

And so on.

This is a powerful story, because it really is true. Many times, in my life, I’ve seen that what I thought was great luck, or terrible luck, didn’t turn out that way at all.

Have you experienced this?

Listen to this mini-podcast episode by clicking PLAY below.

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Want to get in touch? I love hearing from listeners:


Happier listening!

  • I really enjoyed this Little episode! I think it’s so true that “bad” things that happen are often blessings in disguise.

  • Cate

    I am in one of those situation now, where everything is turned upside down, inside out and I don’t know where it’s going…is it good luck or bad luck? Well I’ll tell you this, I am exasperated with the situation and need an answer soon! Help I need to be saved! One way or the other I’m am soooooo done. Cate

    • Anukrity singh

      Hi Cate its anu.
      Nobody can makes us happy but only one thing. You want to know??

      • Cate

        I do want to know. As do my patients and patience, which is strained to the maximum by some guy who comes along and tells me he knows a better way to run my practice. How many Dicks do I need to put up with in my life? We are not talking happiness here, were are talking survival and quality care for women hood.

  • Stephanie Smythe

    I use this story all the time, its one of my favorites! A key I find to dealing with unanticipated/desired circumstances is to remind myself to be curious. When I engage my curiosity, it helps calm my reactivity and reflexive responses. Easier to see possibilities within a set of circumstances.

  • Cindy May

    A couple examples I know of where good or bad luck depends on how you look at it.

    I once read in a Judy Blume book way back when I was a teenager, that when a bird poos on you, that’s good luck (or at least that’s what those of the Jewish faith believe). BTW, that did happen to me once (and thankfully it wiped off easy enough), well more than once actually, and remembering the lesson from Ms. Blume’s book, I didn’t freak out about it.

    Also, I once saw a t-shirt that said, “I’m so busy I don’t know whether I’ve found a rope or lost my horse.”

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve heard that superstition too! (and it has happened to me).

      Gretchen Rubin

      Visit my blog

      My podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin
      My books:Better Than Before —New York Times bestseller
      The Happiness Project —#1 New York Times bestseller
      Join the discussion on Facebook @gretchenrubin

  • Diane Geiger TenHoopen

    I was so excited to discover this post/podcast last night!

    I routinely drive my 2 little nieces to school. Two weeks ago I told them a version of this story after the youngest accidentally exited the house for our ride to school wearing only her slippers. We didn’t realize this error until the moment just *after* I’d locked and pulled shut their front door (we didn’t have a key). Terrible fortune/luck! We were stunned for several moments, wide eyed, standing motionless, our eyes darting up and down from her feet back up to locking eyes with one another, as we each were no doubt silently envisioning her going through the entire school day wearing her fuzzy slippers. How would this even work, for gym, recess, etc? Bad, bad fortune!

    Until… suddenly she realized she had forgotten, the night prior, to remove her gym shoes from the backpack she had strapped to her back! Whew. Good luck/fortune! We had appropriate footwear.

    This wasn’t an exact example of the “good fortune/ bad fortune” parable, as the bad fortune (forgetting of the boots) didn’t cause the good fortune (forgetting to remove the shoes from the backpack the night prior). It was more like multiple instances of forgetfulness that just happened to work out okay in combination with one another. But it gave me the chance to introduce the story and general concept of not leaping too quickly to judgement of “good” vs. “bad” fortune/luck.

    Trouble was: I struggled to tell a coherent version of the story as I drove them to school. I think I kinda confused them. It had been awhile since I’d read or told it. I couldn’t remember what good fortune the broken leg (falling off the horse) had led to. I said something about the son meeting a woman who nursed him back to health, and he married her – that was his “good fortune”. (Incidentally, when I relayed this to my husband later that day he jokingly exclaimed, “wait, so the guy got punished twice?”.)

    Anyway, this morning as we drove to school I played for them this little podcast. It was quite timely, since The Great Slipper Incident of 2017 (and my initial attempt at telling a version of the story) was still pretty fresh in our memory banks. Our ride was delightful and they “got” it! Thanks Gretchen!

  • Heather

    This was by far one of my favorite Littles and was great timing to listen to. Work can put such a strain on life, but I threw this podcast on during my drive home and it immediately calmed me for many reasons…the overall message, the timing of the message and really thinking through how the entire picture and all of the pieces fit together in some grand puzzle. Without one piece you may never complete the entire puzzle and then where would you be. Thank you for adding Littles overall. They are quite perfect when you only have a few moments to distract your mind with something interesting to think about.

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s great to hear that it struck a chord with you.

      Gretchen Rubin

      Visit my blog

      My podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin
      My books:Better Than Before —New York Times bestseller
      The Happiness Project —#1 New York Times bestseller
      Join the discussion on Facebook @gretchenrubin

  • Mimi Gregor

    I’m always quoting this story. One of my favorites.

  • Carrie Isman

    Here’s another great fable (based on a short story by Heinrich Boll) that you may wish to share with listeners on a future show. I’ve come across it twice in the last litte while and every time I read it, I have to immediately run and tell it to someone because it’s a great little piece of wisdom about the relationship between work, money and happiness.


  • Chris

    How do we know… am totally inspired, challenged and motivated by this piece

  • Kaitlin

    I loved this “little” episode when I first heard it, but have been thinking about it even more lately after some stressful situations. Our baby son recently tried peanut butter according to the new pediatric guidelines and had a horrible allergic reaction to it. He had to go to the hospital right away and is now undergoing tests for other allergies, and I found myself thinking that the poor little guy has had some majorly bad luck.

    But how do I know? Perhaps it’s best that he had it first at home when he was so young, where I was prepared and knew exactly what was happening when he got sick. Perhaps he’ll outgrow it sooner. Perhaps it really is bad luck, but how do we know? I’m choosing to be thankful that he is alright, bounced back quickly, and is able to get the medical treatment he needs. He is young, happy, and otherwise completely healthy, so perhaps he is actually a lucky boy.

    • gretchenrubin

      What a scary experience – but you’re right, sounds like it was for the best, in the end.