Happiness, Placebos, and the Beliefs of Others

Because I need one more thing in my life to distract me from actually making progress on any of the other things in my life, I’ve picked up a new hobby recently: wire-wrapping. To be honest, at this point, picking up the hobby mostly consists of watching hours of video tutorials. Something about them is just mesmerizing.

I have gone so far as to pick up some wire and rocks for the wrapping, which involved a trip to the Rock & Art Shop. I loved the Rock & Art Shop before I ever set foot in there, because my nephew has been buying all of his Christmas presents for the family there for a few years. He always finds the neatest things, so I was excited to have an excuse to pop over while I was in the area for a class with my mom.

My mom, against any odds I would have given you, fell in love with a hunk of polished fluorite. It was pretty, all purple and green, and her encomiums drew the attention of an equally enthusiastic clerk. “Oh, I love fluorite,” the young woman said. “It’s so good for you.”

The clerk then proceeded to spend several eternally long minutes exclaiming on the metaphysical virtues of fluorite, on its ability to soak up the positive ions emitted by technology in order to prevent them from throwing off our balance, on its ability to inspire creativity, and a number of other things I didn’t quite catch because I was trying to figure out how to get my mother out of this conversation before her religious aversion to all things mystical overcame her general politeness. Fortunately, about the third time that my mother said, “Yes, well, it is a very pretty rock,” the clerk picked up on the negative charge of her words and stopped attempting to talk the store out of a sale.

I have a tough time interacting with folks around such topics myself. I grew up in a pretty religious home and went through a difficult transition when I left home and realized that my particular beliefs were not just rationally hard to justify: they were actively harmful to people I cared about. I’ve managed to find a place where I feel stable, which includes a general skepticism of all things without any scientific support and a default moral position of trying (not always succeeding, but trying) to default to kindness in my actions to others. Anything more codified or mystical tends to put me at yellow alert, because it strikes me as just another skin for the same lack of responsibility for one’s behavior to others that drove me away from the church in the first place.

But…one thing that I do believe in is the placebo effect. While I very much doubt there’s any rigorous data supporting the ability of fluorite to improve one’s creativity objectively or any clinical trials to test whether or not Mercury being in retrograde actually makes the world go haywire, there are people who put stock in those ideas, and I’m sure that their belief plays a role in their ability to cope with what life throws at them. Coping mechanisms don’t need to be rational to be valuable, and having people who don’t take value from your particular mechanism cut it down is only either going to polarize you into a stronger belief or chip away at the placebo effect that makes your belief useful. So I try very hard to mostly keep my own baggage under wraps when other people wax poetic about their rocks and stars and prophets and just live and let live unless I see someone being hurt by someone else’s belief-motivated actions.

And then, there’s this: a qualitative study based on self-report around some admittedly squidgy emotion words. When you look at the vast numbers of people who cling to some sort of belief system, though, it’s not hard to accept the notion that the ability to engage in awe might actually be valuable to our well-being. Awe isn’t something I’m great at: experiencing wonder doesn’t so much go hand in hand with habitual cynicism as it does hand to hand. I’ve been stuck in a rut of “That’s cool if it’s true, but what’s the flaw?” habit of mind for a while, and it’s a rut that has some legitimate usefulness.

So here’s the question: how do you balance useful skepticism with a bit of healthy awe? Is it possible to experience the benefits of wonder without getting swept out to sea in a riptide of nonsense?

I had an extended conversation with a friend awhile ago about this article. I read it when I was at the bottom of a particularly unproductive slump of negativity, and she took me to task for doubting my own ability to wonder, because I do have a tendency to get a bit carried away by things that spark my interest…like watching people turn bits of unremarkable rock and wire into shiny jewelry. Or how knitting and trigonometry go hand in hand. I tend not to think of those sidetrips of fascination as awe, though, which is where the squidginess of emotion words in qualitative studies becomes problematic. If awe is not operationally defined, how am I supposed to look at my interest in dendritic limestone and judge whether or not it’s meeting my recommended daily dose of awe?

There are, obviously, no perfect answers that will suit everyone, and it’s not a scientifically well-defined problem, but it is something I chew on from time to time. What is the difference between faith in the ionic properties of rocks and joy at the process of turning them into art?