I was hesitant to write this. I'm the guy who talks about using evidence-backed stuff — scientific research — to get real results. But now I'm going to talk about magic.
No, this isn't Hogwarts and I haven't totally lost it. Science gives us clear answers to deal with challenges. The problem is, well, us. We're just not very scientific creatures. Our brains are wired all funny and we're often not terribly rational.
As writer Matthew Hutson points out, we often see meaning where there isn't any, prefer less accurate stories to concrete facts, we give symbolic importance to easily replaceable items (would you swap your wedding ring for a different one?), and believe that things were "meant to be."
These are all examples of "magical thinking" which is about as far from rigorous, logical thought as you can get. But magical thinking is deeply rooted in the human OS.
We find it everywhere, even in psychiatric hospitals. You might not be all that surprised that people with mental disorders might think magically, but I'm not talking about the patients — I'm talking about the staff.
Explicit belief in the summoning power of names exists not only within sorcery circles but also within the walls of psychiatric hospitals. No surprise, right? If you're in a psychiatric ward, there's a good chance you'll have a number of irrational beliefs. But in a 1983 article in Psychiatric Quarterly, a clinical director of Worcester State Hospital reported the popularity of the name belief not among inpatients but among employees. "I just remember sitting around with staff, chatting, and they had a number of magical ideas that they developed over time," Wilfrid Pilette, the article's author, told me when I called him up. For example, don't mention the names of discharged patients, or they'll return.
Now I'm usually loathe to recommend anything unscientific — but you gotta ask yourself: Why are we wired like this? And if there's a good reason, we must derive some benefit from it.
So when do these "magical" ideas make real sense? Without going off the deep end and using a Ouija board to determine your stock picks, when would we be better off employing magical thinking? When is the irrational the most rational? And how can we use "magic" to make our lives better?
Let's get to it.
1) Get lucky
Yes, in some cases carrying around a severed rabbit's limb can actually improve your life.
It's not going to make the cards fall differently at a Vegas poker table, but anything that makes you feel lucky can make you more confident and help you perform at your best:
... activating good-luck-related superstitions via a common saying or action (e.g., "break a leg," keeping one's fingers crossed) or a lucky charm improves subsequent performance in golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games. Furthermore, Experiments 3 and 4 demonstrate that these performance benefits are produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy. Activating a superstition boosts participants' confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance. Finally, Experiment 4 shows that increased task persistence constitutes one means by which self-efficacy, enhanced by superstition, improves performance.
But does believing that luck will help you win the day make you lazy? No. Feeling lucky is motivating.
She and her collaborators found that those who believed they were lucky had no intention of sitting back and letting good things come to them; they wanted to go out there and take on the world, with luck as their copilot. "The more you think of luck as a stable, personal trait," she told me, "the more you feel personal agency, and the more you have a preference for challenging tasks."
Want to help others? Wishing them luck makes them perform better too:
Activating a positive superstitious belief can boost people's confidence, which in turn improves performance: In an experiment, a dexterity task that normally took more than 5 minutes was accomplished in just 191.5 seconds, on average, if participants were wished good luck before they started it ...
(To learn the 4 scientific secrets that will make you lucky, click here.)
Okay, so you're luckier (or at least you think you are, which is pretty much the same thing). But can it ever be good to believe that you don't have any control over the future? That you can't change the world? Yes.
2) When to believe in fate
Psychologists often talk about an "internal locus of control" being a good thing. That means you have some control over your life and what happens to you. It's pretty much the exact opposite of believing in fate. But hold on.
What about when life throws you a terrible curve ball? When something awful and unexpected that truly was not under your control happens? Then "meant to be" can be a wonderful thing to say. Because belief in fate helps us cope:
Results showed that belief in external control led to a considerably smaller decline in life satisfaction and higher scores in the year of the loss. Thus, although usually regarded as a risk factor, belief in external control seems to act as a protective factor for coping with the death of a spouse.
Believing in fate helps turn the random events of life into more of a coherent story, retroactively. Saying "it was meant to be" adds meaning to life:
Fate perceptions ("it was meant to be") and benefit-finding (recognition of positive consequences) were identified as independent causal links between counterfactual thinking and the construction of meaning. Through counterfactual reflection, the upsides to reality are identified, a belief in fate emerges, and ultimately more meaning is derived from important life events.
(To learn more tips on living an awesome life, check out my book here.)
So if you spot any typos in this post, they were just "meant to be." But I'm going to try and improve my writing with a magic potion. Yes, those can work. Even when they don't work.
3) Take a magic potion
You might be ahead of me on this one: yeah, placebos. Pills that don't do anything have actually been shown to improve almost everything. Placebos can:
- Reduce symptoms of illness
- Make other medication 4x as effective
- Improve strength in the gym
- Increase libido
In one study, conscientious patients who got placebos did better than less conscientious people who received real medication:
Most interesting to us, however, was that the conscientious patients (the good adherers) were much more likely to survive whether they were on the Propranolol medication or on the placebo. Being conscientious enough— adherent enough— to fully cooperate with treatment, even if with a placebo, emerged as a more important predictor of mortality risk than the medication itself.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: "But I know it's a placebo. I need to believe it works. It won't work if I know if doesn't work."
Wrong. Placebos can work even when you know they're placebos:
Open-label placebo produced significantly higher mean (±SD) global improvement scores (IBS-GIS) at both 11-day midpoint (5.2±1.0 vs. 4.0±1.1, p<.001) and at 21-day endpoint (5.0±1.5 vs. 3.9±1.3, p= .002). Significant results were also observed at both time points for reduced symptom severity (IBS-SSS, p = .008 and p = .03) and adequate relief (IBS-AR, p = .02 and p = .03); and a trend favoring open-label placebo was observed for quality of life (IBS-QoL) at the 21-day endpoint (p = .08).
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
But what if magic potions aren't giving you what you need? Then we need to try even more intricate magic, Dr. Strange.
4) Cast a spell
No, not really. But turning your little habits into personally meaningful rituals confers a whole host of powerful benefits.
Research by Francesca Gino of Harvard says you might want to give these four rituals a try:
- Savoring ritual: Make the good times better by having something you do to focus on the good things. Share good news with a partner or have a regular mealtime with your family.
- Grief ritual: When something has you down, write about your feelings. It'll reduce the pain and help you cope.
- Personal starting ritual: Beat anxiety and procrastination by having a fun ritual that says it's time to get to work.
- Peak performance ritual: If it makes you feel lucky, you will be lucky. Rituals increase confidence and performance.
And just like the placebo effect, you don't even have to believe the ritual has power for it to have power:
This lack of moderation for frequency and belief across both grief and control suggests that rituals do not require belief in order to yield benefits.
(To learn the number one ritual you need to perform every day, click here.)
Okay, time to talk about using magic to improve the most magical thing of all.
5) Love irrationally
The poets all talk about love being beyond reason and not making sense — in the most wonderful way possible. Turns out they're on to something. Want to be truly in love and have a wonderful relationship? Want a "magical" marriage?
Then do the most unscientific thing and stop trying to see the world so accurately. You don't want to be rigorous, logical and precise. Holding illusions about how wonderful your relationship is predicts great relationships:
... relationship illusions predicted greater satisfaction, love, and trust, and less conflict and ambivalence in both dating and marital relationships. A longitudinal follow-up of the dating sample revealed that relationships were more likely to persist the stronger individuals' initial illusions.
And what about how you see your partner? Again, inaccuracy for the win. If you see them as better than they are, closer to your ideal than they really are, you're less likely to have declines in marital satisfaction over the years:
... seeing a less-than-ideal partner as a reflection of one's ideals predicted a certain level of protection against the corrosive effects of time: People who initially idealized their partner the most experienced no decline in satisfaction.
How you see your partner is critical — the truth isn't. People say couples are happier when they're similar. Not necessarily. But believing you and your partner are similar, that's a very strong predictor of a happy marriage:
Consistent with earlier studies, perceived similarity was shown to be higher than actual similarity and was a stronger positive predictor of marital well-being.
Let yourself be a fool in love by being fooled by love.
(To learn how to make a relationship last, click here.)
Alright, we've learned a lot. Let's round it up and discover the most important reason why you need some magic in your life.
Here's how to make life magical — scientifically:
- Believing you're lucky increases performance: Excuse me while I go look for four-leaf clovers.
- Believing in fate helps you cope: When things are bad, saying it was "meant to be" can make you feel better and help life make sense.
- Placebos can work wonders: Sugar pills can give you superpowers — even if you know they don't give you superpowers.
- Make routines into rituals: If this doesn't help, please don't put a hex on me.
- Deluded love is the best love: Seeing the one you love as better than they really are improves relationships.
Some people still might be skeptical about using "magical thinking" that isn't very accurate or rational to improve their lives. They might think that it's always better to see the world as clearly as possible. But that would be a mistake. It's great for computers but not so good for how the human brain is wired.
We have a term for people who are extremely accurate in how they see the world all the time: clinically depressed.
The researchers found that depressed subjects estimated their control over the light better than nondepressed subjects did. They called the phenomenon "depressive realism."
And how do people who let a little magic into their lives fare?
... evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier and better liked than people who lack such illusions.
Walking around deluded all the time is the last thing I'd recommend. But we're just not built to see our sometimes harsh world with razor-sharp focus 24/7. We need to pick and choose when to see things exactly as they are.
To live good lives we need a little bit of magic.
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