The Wishing Post: How to Wish, and My Wishes

Today is November 11th, 2011, and this post is scheduled for 11:11.  This only happens once (unless you count both AM and PM)!  This is a wishing post…a post with wishes of my own, and also a post about wishing.  In this post, you will find an explanation of how the act of wishing can produce tangible and positive results in our lives and our world.

A magic wand

We all know that wishes do not always come true, but sometimes come true.  Why wish for things?  The main motivation behind wishing is that wishing for something makes it more likely for the wish to come true.  The reasons for this are actually so simple that they are almost self-evident, without any need to resort to mysticism or supernatural explanations:

  • When we wish for something, it is primed in our consciousness.  Even when we are not consciously thinking about the wish, it is lurking somewhere in the back of our minds, and we become more likely to notice things in the world around us that are related to the wish.  Wikipedia has a detailed article on the phenomenon of priming, if you want a full explanation.
  • Once the wish has primed us to things around us related to a specific event, occurrence, or goal, we will be more likely to see or notice opportunities in the world around us that can help us make our wish come true.  We thus become more likely to make our wish a reality, through our own actions and choices.
  • Because we generally wish for positive things that make us feel good, the act of visualizing these things can put us in a more positive mood and mindset.  There is a large degree to which being in a positive mindset and mood can make it more likely for us to have good experiences.  The reason for this lies in the phenomenon of positive feedback loops.  Positive feedback loops are a characteristic feature of nearly all complex systems, and are ubiquitous both in the human mind and body, and in social networks and economic systems.  Wikipedia also has a very good article on positive feedback in systems.  In terms of how you are thinking and feeling, positive feedback operates through the way you are thinking and feeling influencing your actions and decisions in ways that reinforce the same thoughts and feelings.  This can happen both with positive and negative emotions: anger can produce hostile or hurtful actions, which can provoke more anger, causing escalating conflict, or love and generosity can bring out generous and loving qualities in others, leading to positive human relationships.  Wishes can help us leap into a new, positive place, using the power of our imaginations.

How to wish?

It seems silly to ask how to wish; most young children know how to make wishes, and do so frequently.  But, as the examples above show, the ways in which wishing operates are rather complex.  I prefer to think about wishing as a skill, something that can be cultivated and developed.  I’m not an expert wisher, but I do have a few ideas of what makes a good wish, and how to carry out the wish.  I actually want to start though with the how, rather than the what.

An unfamiliar night sky with stars, with a large, bright white object.

People often like to wish upon a star. This photo of the night sky, taken from Mars in 2005, was likely a wish-come-true for the scientists involved in the Spirit Rover project.

  • Give yourself a justification for the wish.  The justification can be genuinely spiritual, or it can be superstitious or even completely made up.  For example, I am posting this post on 11:11, 11/11/11, because this is a good wishing time, as this time is attention-getting and has a culturally accepted significance for making wishes.  Although this post is primarily about wishing, not about prayer, if you are religious or believe in God, you might also find it helpful to pray instead of wishing.  But I want to emphasize that your justification or grounds for the wish do not need to be deep or serious, and you do not need to believe in any sort of global significance to them.  The act of wishing can be fun and lighthearted, so it is often best to pick a silly justification for your wish.  Culturally-accepted events to wish upon (such as the first star you see at night, blowing away the seeds of a dandelion plant, or blowing out candles) can be good options, but you can also create your own traditions and share them with your friends and family.
  • Focus on your wish and experience the act of wishing, rather than letting it happen as a fleeting thought.  The reason for the importance of this lies in how priming works in the brain.  If we are exposed to a stimulus and ignore it, it actually becomes less likely for us to recognize (and thus act on) that stimulus when we encounter it in the future.  This phenomenon is called negative priming, and explains, among other things, how some people might repeat prayers in church, to use an example, out of rote or habit, without being mindful and focusing on them, and then go out into their lives and act in direct conflict with what they just prayed about.  Others, who are mindful of the same prayer and say it deliberately and focus on it, might find the same repeated sayings to translate into positive actions in their lives.

Now that we’ve reflected a little on how to wish, I want to move towards the question of what to wish for.

What to wish for?

I have two pieces of advice about how to determine what to wish for: look for what you want rather than what you are told to want, wish big, and make your wish something you can actually imagine.  The first of these tidbits of advice is the easiest of the three to grasp.

Look for what you want, not what you are told to want:

There are a lot of suggestions and temptations in our society of things to wish for, both for ourselves and for others.  Many of these suggestions are a direct result of marketing and advertising that we are inundated with from a very young age.  Young children are induced by advertising on television and in other media to want specific toys, or other material goods.  Adults as well are told by advertisement what to want, and we are usually told to desire material things, because this produces the greatest profit, and thus payoff, for the advertiser.  But these things are not what we really want.

The retail industry expends massive amounts of money to try to shape culture and people's desires, so that they falsely believe that what they really want is to buy more stuff. Photo by Brian Robert Marshall, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Another source of temptation of things to wish for are the expectations and demands placed on us by other people.  Some people have parents who want them to follow a specific career path, or exhibit a certain type of “success” in life (often manifested in education, job, wealth, status, or marriage and raising children).  Other people may have a boss in a job, or a teacher, or an academic advisor, who always wants more work, better work, or a different sort of work.  Various other people face demands on their time, from responsibilities in clubs or charitable organizations they are involved in, or from friends, romantic partners, or family members.

It is generally a good thing to be concerned with other people, and it is also perfectly okay to wish for material things, as we all need some degree of material resources in order to live our lives and pursue deeper and more meaningful things.  However, when wishing, it is important that you ask yourself what you really want.  If you wish instead for what others tell you to want, you may remain unsatisfied even if the wish comes true.  By wishing for what you really want, you not only make it more likely that your wish will result in an outcome you really want, but, through the act of wishing, you will help yourself to become a more honest and whole person, more assertive and open about your own needs and desires.

Wish big:

One way that wishing can go wrong, or at least be ineffective, is if we wish for things that are too small and too specific.  Life is unpredictable, and we don’t always know what we’re going to end up with in the end.  Sometimes wishing for something specific can be empowering, such as wishing you get a job, directly before going into an interview for that job.  But in the long-run, if you wish about a highly specific job or career that doesn’t exist and is not realistic to create, you may not find it, and you may remain frustrated.  If instead, you broaden your wish, such as wishing for a fulfilling, meaningful job, you may see and be able to take opportunities that you did not notice when your sights were more narrow.

A mother and baby elephant, in the savannah

Elephants are big, but love is bigger.

I’m also a big fan of wishing big, that is, wishing for miracles, things that seem impossible, out of reach, or at least highly unlikely.  Examples of these sorts of wishes include healing or recovery from terminal illnesses or conditions that seem impossible to overcome, or broad-scale cultural or political changes that we often feel powerless to influence.  And miracles and broad-scale changes do sometimes happen, as anyone who has seen a loved one live far longer than the doctors predicted, or anyone who has seen the fall of an oppressive system like apartheid in South Africa, will testify to.

But, if wishing is to be effective, the practice of wishing big must be tempered by a third piece of advice, one anchored in realism and our limitations as human beings.

Make your wish something you can actually imagine:

One of the big cliche wishes which doesn’t seem to come true in spite of many people wishing for it is world peace.  I’m a very optimistic person, and I actually believe that world peace is possible and will some day be attained, although to be realistic, we will probably always have some form of conflict.  But why, if so many people are so often wishing for world peace, do we still have so much war?  This seems like one of those questions that is impossible to answer, but I want to offer a possible explanation.

My explanation is that “world peace” is too vague a wish, and too hard to imagine in a way that is real and relevant to our lives.  (Contrast this with a wish to end a specific war or conflict, which always eventually comes true.)  What does “world peace” mean?  Most people don’t even have a grasp of what “world” means.  We don’t have an intuition for how large the world is, and for how many people there are in the world.  And most of us know little to nothing about many or all of the places where we are supposedly wishing for peace.

Overly vague wishes are limited in the degree to which they can actually empower us to positively influence our world, in part because they do not involve vivid imagery of what the outcome of the wish would look like, to us, in our own lives.  They don’t prime us for anything directly related to the goal.  There are thus few opportunities for us to act in our daily lives in ways to actually bring our desired results into being.  If we are to wish for the end of a conflict, we need to feel some sort of connection to the people and places involved in the conflict, and we need to have a picture of what peace would look like.  Then, and only then, will we be able to let wishing do its magic, and begin to seize opportunities to actually make the wish into a reality through some sort of concrete action in our daily lives.

I want to clarify that I’m not telling people to avoid wishing for (or working for) world peace or other global goals.  But I will say, if you really want to achieve such goals, your best bet is to think carefully about vivid ways to visualize them, and make them as relevant to your life as possible.

My wish:

My wish is that people throughout the world will take time to stop and reflect on what they really want, not what consumerist marketing or societal expectations tell them to want.  And I wish that people will take time to do this not once, but on an ongoing basis, setting aside time in each day to do so, to think about the broader, longer-term things in life, so that their actions can be more purposeful in a global sense.

I wish that people will stop and look critically on the obsession that dominates not only American culture, but many cultures in the global economy: the obsession with self-advancement and competition, which manifests in working ever harder and longer hours to earn money, focusing on getting good grades in school, advancing in one’s career, and achieving other tangible material measures of success.  I wish that people will step back and take some time to ask deeper questions about what they are really working for, and do everything in their power to make choices that produce the best results for society as a whole, rather than just trying to advance themselves in a big game of status and power.  And I wish that people will become more aware of how their actions give power to or take power away from those in authority, and that, to whatever degree possible, they will give their power to those placing the best interests of society as a whole first, and find ways to keep power away from those who are merely working to advance themselves.

I think I have a good idea of what society would look like if we did more of this.  I think a large number of problems would start to solve themselves.  I also think I have a lot of ideas about how to bring this vision into being; if you want to learn more about some of these ideas, read more of this blog.

What is your wish?

Share a wish here in the comments, or write a blog post of your own about your wish!  It doesn’t matter if you missed the wishing time, 11:11 on 11/11/11.  I wrote this wishing post to open up an unlimited amount of wishing by an unlimited number of people!

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3 Responses to The Wishing Post: How to Wish, and My Wishes

  1. Carol says:

    Alex, I would like to join you in your wish. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Melanie says:

    I do wish for world peace, someday, in the distant future. And I wish to be one of the reasons it happens sooner.

    Man, it’s hard to make wishes like that and not feel silly.

  3. Brent says:

    I wish for a garden near the sea where friends can come to find companionship, joy and peace.

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