To Your Mental Health: Between Fate & Choice

Choices, The Chicago Cubs And The Lure Of Superstition

By Jason Florin | Bugle Columnist

Jason Florin

Jason Florin

A basic part of my morning routine involves starting the coffeemaker and then choosing the day’s coffee mug. The cabinet displays a great variety of sizes, shapes and colors to pick from. As I scan my options on this particular fall morning, I notice a red and blue emblem peeking through from the back row. I pull it forward and see it’s a Chicago Cubs logo, and this day just happens to be the opening game of the playoffs.

Even though I haven’t used this mug in months, during which time the team has won the most games in baseball on their way to a division title, today it feels like they cannot possibly win unless I choose their mug. I can almost feel the stars aligning as fate draws me to select the cup that will assure the team a victory. So, I succumb to the delusion.

In a classic episode of the TV show “The Office,” boss Michael Scott explains that he is not super-stitious, but he is a little “stitious.” Even if we are rational and level headed in most of our daily encounters, there still might be times when we give in to the lure of superstition. We cross our fingers for luck, avoid walking under a ladder or even pump a little extra gas to make sure the last three numbers don’t read 6-6-6.

The concept of superstition is that we believe we can control events that are really outside of our control. These magical beliefs become stronger if the outcome happens to go our way. When the Cubs won their game the night I used that coffee mug, I made sure it was the only thing I drank out of for the rest of the weekend.

On the one hand, this kind of behavior is all in good fun – a harmless way of trying to be part of something bigger. On the other hand, an over-reliance on superstition can turn against us. Instead of focusing on choices that can have a meaningful impact in our lives, we waste energy on what we cannot control. As hard as we might try, we can’t change what others do and think, let alone how the universe will unfold.

The irony of superstition is that our misguided effort at greater control only leads us to have less control in our lives. Numerous research studies suggest that when we believe that we steer our own lives – known as an internal locus of control – we feel better, perform better and experience greater success. We also take responsibility for our actions, rather than chalking it up to fate or bad luck.

The opposite occurs when we see our lives as a rudderless ship, tossed whichever way the wind and currents decide. This lack of power – known as an external locus of control – is associated with higher rates of depression, lack of self-esteem and lower life satisfaction. These beliefs also lead to stepping back from important life situations, since it feels as if we have no influence over the outcome.

By recognizing that we have choices to make, as well as how important those choices are, we can create a meaningful life. Yet when it comes to the areas we cannot change, it’s equally important to accept that we don’t have total control.

So you can keep the quirky routines that provide a small sense of connectedness, just as long as you don’t take them too seriously. After all, the best way to avoid tempting fate is to take control of it.

P.S. If the Cubs don’t win it all this year, you can’t blame me – I’m still using the same mug.

Jason Florin has 15 years of experience working in mental health and substance abuse treatment. He is currently an assistant professor and coordinator of Human Services at College of DuPage. He holds a master’s degree in Health Science from Governors State University, in addition to national and state certifications in addictions counseling. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent any other institution or organization.

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