Arts & Culture

Astrology Doesn’t Have To Be Real To Make You Happy

Horoscopes aren't supposed to give you all the answers–but they can help you treat yourself with compassion

5 min read

Astrological charts, books, a pen
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It’s the end of Pisces Season. I know this because I read about what Pisces Season means when I read my horoscope on one website, and then on another. I keep teasing a coworker about it because she’s a Pisces, and we love to share memes on the subject. (I also sometimes call it “Rihanna Season,” since Rihanna is a Pisces–and I love Rihanna.)

This Pisces Season, I realized how peculiar it actually is to call this time period–February 19 to March 20–”Pisces Season.” It’s almost a rejection of the Gregorian calendar, which is a piece of Christianity that so much of the global culture has to adhere to. (Consequently, everyone must consider it the year “2019” and celebrate the “New Year” and then the “Lunar New Year.”) It struck me that, while people may have varying degrees of sincerity when it comes to believing in the zodiac, just acknowledging Pisces Season–especially all over the internet, on sites that, though not armed with years of credibility, get considerable traffic–is a subversive way to view your calendar.

Astrology is full of little things like that. Instead of birthdays, we have birth charts. Instead of personalities, we have signs. Instead of me forgetting all my friends’ birthdays, I remember their signs–and at the start of their seasons I ask, “So, when’s the party?”

I kid. But astrology–and tarot cards, and palm readings, and psychics–are everywhere. Why? I think it has to do with the narrative device of the second person.

The second-person narrative is rarely used in fiction, unless you’re Italo Calvino. In our everyday lives, we mostly come across the second person through communication from others–emails, tweets, letters, direct messages. But we also find it in more anonymous zones, like advertisements.

Advertisements tell us who we are and what we want, encouraging us to shape our minds around what we don’t have. It’s a key component of capitalism: How do we make people want things that they may or may not need? I’m talking about the marketing phenomenon that encouraged women to shave their legs in order to build a whole new consumer audience for razors. These days, with Instagram and Facebook, it feels so much worse. There’s always a new thing to buy to make your life better. Because apparently everyone with Brooklinen sheets, Quip toothbrushes, and Care/of vitamins is living their best life, right? But of course that’s not really true, even though those candy-colored posts on Instagram make it seem so.

So why trust these horoscopes, these astrologers? Aren’t they selling us bullshit, too?

Maybe. But horoscopes feel different. First, they’re often free. Second, no matter how made-up they are, horoscopes are all based on one unified theme: how the moon, sun, and planets are seen from Earth. Mercury is in retrograde this week, no matter if you’re reading Chani Nicholas, Astro Poets, Annabel Gat, Jessica Lanyadoo, Free Will Astrology, or any other astrologer out there. Even better, these planetary orbits, while predictable, happen totally independent of earthly matters–no politics here! Finally, because there are so many astrology sites, you can cherry-pick which insights you want to take in–and you can also ignore them if they don’t make you feel better.

That’s because, importantly, horoscopes are supposed to make you feel good. It’s the cardinal rule of reading fortunes: tell the client something that makes them happy so they keep coming back. But it’s different nowadays. It’s not just about making the customer happy. It’s about providing self-compassion.

I was thinking of this as I listened to Jessica Lanyadoo’s advice to a listener on her podcast, Ghost of a Podcast. The listener writes in about their relationship, and how they know their partner isn’t the one, but they don’t want to break up. Lanyadoo gives pretty straightforward advice: break up! However, instead of putting it that way, she guides the listener through the probabilities and possibilities and feelings swirling around the problem. She might be harsh, but she is also tender, and understanding. Her soft wording is pretty par for the course among astrologers. It’s what enables them to sell or advertise their related books, workshops, and apps.

If advertisements are designed to make us insecure enough to buy fancy sheets and pricey furniture in order to feel as if we’re the best, then horoscopes (and other psychic-related services) help us treat ourselves with self-compassion.

Self-compassion is not the same as having high self-esteem. Instead, it’s the ability to look at your situation in life and be kind to yourself. It means seeing your failings and flaws and suffering for what they are, rather than trying to brush them aside.

With their use of the second person, and their vague but hopeful readings, horoscopes feel like messages from the universe saying, “Hey, it’s OK. Maybe things are going wrong right now, but it’s just because of Mercury, or Jupiter, or Saturn. Things will turn around soon.”

And that’s the other wonderful part of horoscopes: there’s a narrative. It’s not just about acknowledging your situation, it’s also about contextualizing it. A narrative that ebbs and flows based on vague sketches of our personalities gives our life a meaning beyond what we can see, without demanding that we have faith. Narratives are so strong that they can change our outlook on life. This effect can be as small as prompting a little more empathy toward the people around us, and as broad as empowering refugees to take control of their narratives.

The same goes for Tarot cards, psychic and aura readings, and these Animal Spirit cards that I personally use (created by Kim Krans). The last one is my favorite, because it’s based on little more than the creator’s interpretations of animals, wildlife, and vague references to Hinduism. Having grown up Hindu, I find her references charming and delightful, because I feel as if I’m practicing Hinduism when I use her cards, in a roundabout way.

But are these narratives always good? I don’t know. I do know that self-compassion and relatable content can be found all over Instagram, and that all these astrologers tend to be selling something alongside their free horoscopes. There are numerous products branded on the idea that, if we identify enough with these signs, we’ll buy special lipsticks, or T-shirts, or nail polishes because we’re Pisceans, or Cancers, or Virgos. Advertisements have also grown with the times, and now they’re constantly exploiting relatable, self-compassionate content. Think of how “self-care,” a political term for how we’re supposed to monitor and check our health and well-being in order to live to fight another day, has been co-opted by beauty and fitness brands.

And then there’s the dark side of narrative–historical narratives tend to flatten actual history, leaving us with ideas of the past that elide the actual truth of how the world changed. We love our narratives so much that they can block us from understanding the truth. Studies have shown that we are more likely to believe stories that confirm how we think about the world; this is why and how people become susceptible to fake news. Believing things that are false is a particular problem among people who grew up with certain beliefs that they’ve never been given the time or space to criticize and question. They’re then left with confirmation biases that provide an unconscious framework for how they see the world.

But even people who present themselves as critical thinkers can fall through the cracks of narrative. The belief that there are straight lines between cause and effect causes people to believe certain stories happen because of measurable events–such as a kid getting into the NBA because he’s tall and hardworking, and has parents who push him to do his best. But what about luck, opportunity, timing? These are harder to measure, but likely more of a factor in the kid’s success.

In defense of astrology and other related psychic miscellany, they’re not trying to be the answer to everything. The narrative is not an answer–it’s just a narrative. It can be interpreted differently for every sign, by every astrologer. And sometimes narratives are helpful–as many people have found through therapy, new narratives can help us rethink how we approach ourselves and our struggles.

This means that my desire to read my horoscope, and to interpret it, comes and goes. If it fits, it fits; if it doesn’t, it’s nothing personal. Last month I was out of sorts, emotionally. I felt overwhelmed by and anxious about my regular life–and when it came to politics, I was full of despair and fear. My horoscope felt like useless nonsense, so I mostly ignored it.

But when I read my horoscope a few weeks ago, it promised that Friday would bring a surprise. I remember thinking, All right, how bad of a surprise will this be?

I braced myself, and Friday came and went. But I felt different at the end of the day–I felt as if my thoughts and feelings were falling into place, making shapes that I understood instead of the scribbled mess that they always seemed to be. On a world level, everything was still a mess. But my emotional turmoil had resolved itself. Was it because I read the horoscope? Probably. Did that mean I was going to read it again? Definitely.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Arts & Culture section, which looks at innovations in human creativity. Click the logo to read more.