Rhonda Byrne thought big. In her 2006 bestseller The Secret, the journalist claimed to have discovered “the greatest power in the universe”: The Law of Attraction. Not gravity (despite the name) but the notion that “you become what you think about most, but you also attract what you think about most.” I suppose if she’d stuck with “the greatest power in her home town of Melbourne, Australia,” or even “…in the world,” she’d have had more credibility. But the universe, no less. That’s pretty ovarian thinking.
Of course, Byrne wasn’t the first to discover magical thinking, the belief that (per the Encyclopedia Britannica) “one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world.” Or, as Wikipedia has it, that there’s a causal connection between “religious ritual, prayer, meditation, trances, sacrifice, incantation, curses, benediction, faith healing, or the observance of a taboo” and “an expected benefit or recompense.” Anyone who has thrown a pair of dice while visualizing the outcome (“C’mon boxcars!”), or prayed to the Good Lord for help when facing an operation, is guilty of magical thinking. That is, all of us.
(Re the prayers: Harvard professor and cardiologist Herbert Benson initiated a 2006 study to determine if prayer helped patients recover from surgery, which involved 2,000 coronary artery bypass patients. On a random basis, some were prayed for by three “experienced prayer groups” consisting of Catholic monks, Catholic nuns, and a Protestant prayer ministry. The prayers, which started on the day of surgery and lasted for two weeks, seemed to make things worse: 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered complications, compared to 51 percent who didn’t know. And 18 percent of the uninformed prayed-for group suffered major complications such as heart attack and stroke compared to 13 percent of the uninformed, un-prayed-for group. See this.)
The latest instance of magical thinking, I’m told, is the “Lucky Girl” fad currently being promoted on TikTok and Instagram. Quoting two posters, “Everything I want and need is on its way to me right now. I am open to receive,” and “I am powerful and in control of my reality. I attract all that is good in this universe. I find myself in a state of perpetual happiness.”
Look, there’s nothing wrong, in my view of the universe (!), with optimism. But the notion that we can achieve success effortlessly, simply by thinking about it, seems dangerous to a fault. Here’s how I think it really works. Years ago, Louisa and I were staying in a small town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca in South America. One evening, we walked up a low hill by the lakeside, where, on what appeared to be an altar at the top, were a dozen or so toy pick-ups and trucks and buses.
A family group was standing around the altar, murmuring what may have been prayers. Later, at the bottom of the hill, we saw them again and started chatting with them. (That is, Louisa did—her Spanish was and is way better than mine.) “We were curious about the trucks on the altar,” we said. “Did you leave them there?” “Oh no, we bring them down after blessing them,” they explained, pulling out several of the brightly-painted vehicles.” “Um, why?” we wanted to know. “Well, last year we wanted our family to have a taxi to bring in an income, so we blessed a toy taxi. Then we all worked very very hard, and last month, we were able to buy a taxi. This year, we blessed a combi (minibus). So if we work very very hard, we should have one by next year.”
I thought of a friend who had a photo of a pony on her fridge door, and another who had a picture of a red sports car stuck to her bathroom mirror. The Bolivian family was simply doing—in three dimensions, rather than two—just what my friends did. They visualized what they wanted, then they worked very very hard. That’s how it works! You decide you want something and then, with that picture in your mind as your incentive, you work—very very hard!—to achieve it. Nothing magical about it at all.
On the other hand, if we indulge in magical thinking, we’re likely to make poor decisions by naively assuming that everything will work out in the end. According to Robert West, a psychologist at University College London (quoted in Live Science), “The danger of believing that we can achieve things just by imagining them is that it actually stops us doing the things that would make our lives, and those of other people, better.”
Put another way, it’s healthier to take responsibility for our lives, knowing that dumb luck is going to have a big say in the outcome of our actions, no matter what, than believing in some mystical power that grants our wishes because we believe it will..
That’s the trouble with aging: you see patterns repeating and start feeling that been-there-done-that syndrome. Seems every generation has its own version of magical thinking, complete with books, movies and now online videos. Me? Cynical? You bet I am.