It’s safe to say that most people don’t enjoy unpleasant surprises. Unpleasant surprises are so… unpleasant. Most people enjoy feeling in control. Control feels sane somehow. Even those who enjoy losing control on drugs, alcohol and/or pimentos may want to return to control—at least, on occasion.
There is comfort in control (less messy too). For most people feeling in control is better than feeling like a victim of chance and circumstance. Most people would probably agree with the guy in those commercials who says, “Control suits me.”
Incidentally, the guy in those commercials is actor Patrick Warburton. He played David Puddy on the show Seinfeld. In the reverse peephole episode he gets a new jacket and says, “Check it out. 8 Ball. You got a question, you ask the 8 Ball!” (Puddy’s 8 Ball Jacket).
People enjoy assurances. That could explain why billions of perfectly normal people obsess over zodiac signs, consult 8 Balls, crystal balls, Ouija boards and tarot cards—not to mention religion, superstition, voodoo and the honesty of politicians. To the scientifically-minded it can seem crazy what perfectly normal people will believe.
It’s common for people to think that nothing in life is truly coincidental. People might try to be intellectual, clinical and cynical like in the “Logical Song”, but irrational beliefs at an unconscious level seem hardwired into our psyches (“Why Everyone Believes in Magic…)”.
If you put a picture of a baby on the wall and tell people to throw darts at it, why is it that people feel uncomfortable at a gut-level? Maybe it’s because gut-level intuition is when you understand something immediately and people equate images with reality.
Faulty causality is when people assume that because one thing follows another, it was caused by the other (Common Fallacies…). Faulty causality, hasty and sweeping generalizations, confirmation bias (interpreting information that confirms preexisting beliefs), illusory correlation (perceiving a relationship between something when no relationship exists) along with faulty assumptions, comparisons and so on can cause problems (6 Mental Traps That Ruin Your Life).
The National Science Foundation found that 58% of 18-24-year-old Americans believe astrology is scientific (source) and it’s fashionable to blame “Mercury in Retrograde.” As Taylor Swift explained, “When Mercury is in retrograde, basically that means everything is going to be completely wrong, messed up and miscommunicated… so you can’t blame yourself” (source).
And therein is a key to enjoyment: It isn’t always your fault.
All planets rotate around the sun in the same direction, but our position relative to Mercury and observed movement gives the illusion of planets (not just Mercury) changing direction (source) but that doesn’t matter. It’s not that a rock 48 million miles away is causing miscommunication, it’s Mercury, the god of communication in Roman mythology, who is to blame!
Blaming forces beyond one’s control is comforting. We’re off the hook. In Roman times, if you had good fortune or misfortune, it wasn’t you who did it, it was the goddess Fortuna—the personification of luck—who smiled or frowned upon you. People enjoy feeling connected to the cosmos, to nature or to something beyond one’s self.
We are meaning-makers (see also: Enjoy Happiness from the Periphery). Our brains look for patterns even when none exist to give us a sense of self-control—think: “Knock on wood” (Big Think). Habits of mind that lead us to think that luck and supernatural forces are real, that we have souls and a destiny is not necessarily a bad thing. Magical thinking might be a subtle obstacle to making good decisions, but it can make for happier people.
The two most common mental disorders are depressive disorders and anxiety disorders. These disorders impact the mood of people. In 2015 the Who (not the band but the World Health Organization) said that about 300 million people in the world have a depressive disorder and about the same number have an anxiety disorder (source). One in ten Americans is affected by depression and that number grows by 20% per year (source).
Thinking is a double-edged sword. Thoughts of past events that repeat can leave a person depressed and repetitive thoughts about what lies ahead can leave a person paralyzed and anxious. When your brain’s limited capacity for attention is compromised by overthinking, mental well-being is compromised and when that happens, it’s hard to enjoy the life you’re in.
When something terrible almost happens or does happen (but could have been worse), we have an emotional experience. This experience draws us to magical-meaning making. We see causality in coincidence. Our subjective reality is created by perceptions that can be distorted by emotions. Even skeptics and atheists who think new age thinking, religious belief and superstition is stupid can have a predisposition to magical thinking.
Psychologist Ellen Langer calls the tendency of people to overestimate their ability to control events the “illusion of control.” It’s one of the positive illusions that also includes: “illusory superiority”—when you overestimate your qualities and abilities compared to others—and “optimism bias”—when you think you have less chance of experiencing something negative compared to others (source).
Cognitive bias—when you think in a way that deviates from a standard of rationality—can lead to illogical inferences that distort perceptions but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You might think having accurate perceptions of yourself and the future are essential to mental health, but research shows otherwise.
Overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control and unrealistic optimism helps people to feel more contentment and happiness; moreover, distorting information in a positive direction and isolating negative information as nonthreatening helps people to be more caring of others, creative and productive (“Illusion and Well-Being…”).
There’s nothing a little music can’t help. Lighten up and follow your gut. Enjoy a happy new year all year but watch out for seagulls.