…chance encounters play a prominent role in shaping the course of human lives.~ Albert Bandura Former president, American Psychological Association

Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.~ Louis Pasteur

A friend of mine recently went through a tough time: a personal crisis. She was scouring for signs of something positive, anything that would offer a ray of hope or light for her situation. She decided to go out for some tea when she encountered a woman, unknown to her, who began chatting about the trials and tribulations of her life.

The woman spoke of gratitude for those who had courage, and at the end of what was essentially a monologue the woman said to my friend: “Everybody goes through difficulties. Surround yourself with positive people and hang in there.” With that the woman got up and left. My friend had not shared a word of her difficulties, yet this chance encounter satisfied her need to receive something positive.


Perhaps. But the intriguing feature of this story is that the chance encounter provided the necessary spark of encouragement and hope. My friend e-mailed me and wanted to know what the positive psychology folks might think about such a meeting: How might fortuitous circumstances influence our wellbeing?

In 1957, writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders offered the quote: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” John Lennon later popularized the above sentiment in his song Beautiful Boy. We can all relate. We spend so much time working toward something, only to have the unexpected snare our attention and take us in a completely different direction. Of course this could be for better or worse. But is there a science underneath the positivity of chance encounters? We can test it out.

Think of the three best, most important experiences in your life. Really. Take a moment to do this. No particular order—but three things that happened to you that really changed your life. Once you think about it you will realize that one or two, if not all three were likely to have happened by chance. Sure, there was the degree you received that you worked on for years, or the promotion at work you deserved. But it is probable that at least some of the major positive experiences of your life were chance happenings; people or circumstances you couldn’t predict or control. They just happened.

Yet psychology is defined as a science that helps us describe, predict and control behavior. So here is a seeming contradiction. The major events in life — how we met our spouse or lover, what profession we chose, or friend we’ve made — may have all happened by chance. Some of the things that have made us happiest in life were never on our to-do list.

Who we become is greatly influenced by what happens beyond our control. And yet, as your own life has likely revealed, there is evidence that chance encounters can, and do, positively influence our lives. Perhaps it is time to build this into the formula for expecting, and experiencing more joy and more hope in our lives.

Albert Bandura wrote a paper thirty years ago that highlighted chance occurrences as the blind spot in psychology. He looked at both positive and negative chance encounters. But what is intriguing from the recent advances in positive psychology is that positive thoughts and expectations may facilitate and enhance the experience of a chance encounter. Bandura also pointed out that “fortuitous influences may be unforeseen, but having had occurred, they enter as causal chains in the same way as prearranged ones do.”

In the May 2010 issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology researchers Peters, Flink, Boersma and Linton demonstrated that subjects who imagined a “best possible self” (BPS) for one minute and wrote down their thoughts generated a significant increase in positive affect. The researchers also concluded “…that imaging a positive future can indeed increase expectancies for a positive future.” In other words, the researchers demonstrated it was possible to induce optimism.

By inducing optimism the prepared mind becomes a positive one. This is an intriguing finding: it suggests that we can change both how we feel in the moment, and how we feel about what is to come. If we are prepared properly and are optimistic we are likely to incorporate the chance encounter and use it as a positive experience. The glass we were not expecting to see will be half full.

But can being optimistic really make a difference? There are many studies now that suggest optimism can help with everything from sales to grades. Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life ushered in the research on the advantages of having an optimistic attitude. If you are interested in your level of optimism here is a quiz you can take based on Dr. Seligman’s book. But the very short answer is yes: Having a positive outlook makes a big difference in our outlook and productivity.

The challenge is for us to cultivate as much optimism as we can muster, and to do this in anticipation of the unforeseen. This is important because as Heraclitus said, “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it…”

I was in the process of preparing my next Proof Positive post when the e-mail from my friend came in. I left what I was writing for a future time and was inspired to prepare this post instead.

Now you’re reading it.

As Bandura pointed out 30 years ago…

Louis Pasteur