Karla Starr has written for O, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times, and she received the Best Science/Health award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Her first book recently hit the shelves: Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others.
Karla says, “The best way we can successfully deal with the unknown is by building our own character strengths: our flexibility, empathy, confidence, self-control, curiosity, self-esteem, humility, persistence, belief in our ability to improve, and the ability to simply show up. The key to maximizing luck is simply to maximize what you bring to the table, plug yourself into many outlets, and be open to whatever comes along.”
I couldn’t wait to talk to Karla about happiness, habits, luck, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Karla: If I had to pick just one thing, it’s to get enough sleep. It’s the basis of physical and mental health, and I have no problems prioritizing it over everything else. When I go to bed early enough to wake up naturally, I have more energy, my brain works as well as it can, and I feel like a functional human.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Karla: I knew nothing about happiness when I was 18; I just thought it was something for people who had summer houses, Ivy League scholarships, great wardrobes, and perfect test scores. But as it turns out, you can have all of those things and be miserable.
Two people in the exact same situation can have completely different moods because of what they pay attention to and how they interpret it. Fortunately, we have complete control over those two things. Paying attention to something is what gives it power, which is why practicing gratitude is so important. I had no idea it was that simple.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Karla: How much random, uncontrollable things influence our thoughts, behavior, and habits, which are entirely controllable.
Small moments can alter our entire life’s trajectory by making us assume that it’s part of a larger pattern. For example, seeing someone try to cut in line at the grocery store can make us assume that they’re a jerk; if we see them later on, we’d probably ignore them or give them a look. But what if they were in a hurry to buy food for a sick friend, and felt awful about cutting in line? We never get a chance to find out if we’re wrong.
Our brains love patterns, even though this means seeing regularities in the environment that may not actually exist.
I was surprised to find out how easily this can happen when we get information about ourselves. If a grade school teacher tells us that we’re not cut out for music, we learn that we’re no good. So So we’ll never practice, get more flustered when we do, and assume that improving is harder for us than others—even though getting better takes time for everyone. More often, however, we’ll just quit. We don’t realize how many aspects of our life are self-fulfilling prophecies, and the lengths that people will go to in order to avoid being wrong about themselves and the world, even when it might lead to positive change.
Our social environments play a huge role. Imagine someone with jaded friends who goes on a few dates that turn out to be bad. They might begin to think of dating as a pointless endeavor, and start acting distant or slightly hostile towards others—the very behavior that drives people away. Over time, they might conclude that they’re fated to be alone, stop giving new people a chance, or never meeting people. Guess what? That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You never learn that you’re wrong.
Think of a story you might attribute to luck, like getting an offer for your dream job meeting the love of your life, getting your startup funded, or being accepted into your first choice school. We don’t see the lifetime of good habits that went into these moments, like attending networking events every week and keeping in touch with professional contacts for years, or staying positive after years of bad dates. No one posts on Facebook about living off of ramen and having tons of roommates while developing their app, or that they studied for a standardized test every weekend for two years.
Actions that lead to larger rewards in the future often feel less rewarding in the present, and change itself can be difficult. It can take longer to see those larger fruits of beneficial habits than people realize. Doubting the value of good habits can make people inconsistent enough to never see change, or give up prematurely. Change takes time. Different habitual ways of responding to what happens to us create wildly different life trajectories over time.
I was surprised to see how many aspects of life are self-fulling prophecies: when people become convinced that certain outcomes won’t happen, we never really try to make them happen. And guess what? We’re right—even if it started because of a random comment.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Karla: I used to think that exercise was torture, and that being athletic just wasn’t in the cards for me. I used the research to turn it around: bit by bit, I made everything associated with a healthy lifestyle as positive and rewarding as possible. I found an activity that I really enjoyed and a coach I connected with. I started befriending people at the gym, got workout clothes that I loved, and focused on how good it felt to get better. My attitude towards health has done a complete 180. I even won a competition at my gym this past year!
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Karla: Absolutely no one who knows me will be surprised that I’m a Questioner! I researched my book for years and am obsessed with learning. I hate the feeling of being forced to do something just for the sake of doing it. But if I have a good reason, I have no problem moving time and space for something that I want to do.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Karla: “One coin won’t make you rich, but the only way to get rich is by collecting coins.” [Gretchen: This is one of my favorite teaching stories! Here’s an episode of A Little Happier where I talk about it.] My life today is the sum total of my past choices. Each small action may feel inconsequential, but every one counts. Every smart decision you make adds value to your future self. Books are read and written one word at a time, well-being is improved one healthy decision at a time, relationships are strengthened one kind deed at a time, retirement accounts grow one dollar at a time, and marathons are finished one step at a time. Every extra minute of reading, writing, brownie-skipping, gym-hitting, hugging, thanking, saving, and stepping adds up over time. Everything counts.
Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Karla: People think that personality traits and intelligence are static, but our brains are much more plastic and malleable than we realize, at any age. Personality traits also depend on the situation we find ourselves in: everyone becomes more conscientious when they’re about to finish a project they really want to complete, or more extroverted when they see a great friend they really want to catch up with. Our lifestyles and social environments shape what we think we’re capable of, especially the habits among people in your social circle. As the narrative we tell ourselves about our life starts to take shape over time, people settle into a story of who we are, and make a habit of putting ourselves in situations where we’re most comfortable.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Karla: Last year, when I was working on my last chapter on the importance and difficulty of open-mindedness, I had a health scare. One of my friends said she’d pray for me, and I replied that it wasn’t a good use of her time. After talking, I ended up testing the advice that I was giving in that chapter: what if I was wrong, and there was a divine presence in the universe? Why was I stubbornly refusing to even consider it? What was the worst that could happen if I was wrong?
It felt so odd to challenge such a core belief, especially one I’d been writing about for years. But what if the universe wasn’t just made of chaos and randomness—what if coincidences were meaningful? A few days after my scare, I started to act “as if.”
If you do everything in your power to make your future brighter, stay flexible about the outcome, and have patience that things will eventually work out, they will. Another word for luck is faith.