Cross Your Fingers: Do Rituals Really Work?

(Editor’s note: This article from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Some researchers go one step further. They say being lucky or unlucky depends on how you handle chance opportunities. Fortunate people generate their own good fortune — or at least influence it — by noticing hidden opportunities lurking in chance events.

Dr. Stephann Makri, a senior lecturer in human-computer interaction at City, University of London, has studied how people perceive and create serendipity. He found that chance, luck, and serendipity mean different things to different people. “It’s very subjective,” he says. “It comes down to the person experiencing it.”

In one study, he asked participants to reflect on a turning point in their lives. He was struck by how some people viewed even negative or painful experiences in a positive light. In hindsight, they felt lucky because they could see how a bad event had ultimately changed their life for the better.

“People framed it differently because of how they valued the experience as a whole,” says Makri. He adds that an “aha” moment is key to serendipity. Recognizing an unexpected opportunity is an important part of taking advantage of happenstance. “The brain has to make a connection to say this could be useful,” he says. He says that potential fortuitous encounters are everywhere around us, although we might not always know it at the time.

In a study of creative professionals, Makri discovered they had strategies for creating and spotting chance opportunities. They seemed to be in the right place at the right time. More importantly, they took advantage of serendipitous encounters when they came along. So, while we may not be able to influence luck, we can cultivate a mindset that allows us to see serendipity everywhere.


1.  Vary your routine: Break your own habits to avoid getting stuck in a rut. Be open to fresh ideas and meeting a lot of different people. Explore new ways of doing things in your job or everyday life.

2. Create mental space: Taking a break is essential in our fast-paced modern life. Rituals such as yoga, meditation, chanting, or morning walks are all ways to help clear your mind.

3. Look around you: Be curious about what is happening around you all the time. By being observant you can draw inspiration from your environment. A composer once described this ritual to Makri: every day he would stand in front of a busy train station, close his eyes, and simply listen to the chorus of sounds he heard everywhere around him.

4. Step outside your comfort zone: Try out an acting, singing, or dance class. Relax your boundaries and shake up your routine by trying new foods, discovering new places, and becoming interested in new hobbies.

5. Be flexible: Creative solutions can come from past experience. If you’re facing a challenge at school or work, ask yourself what you’ve already learned that could be useful in this situation. With an open, curious mind, you can seek — and take advantage of — serendipity.

(Editor’s note: This article from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


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