Written In The Stars? What Coronavirus Means For Our Relationship With Astrology

Illustrated by Lily Fulop.
Illustrated by Lily Fulop.
Every morning during lockdown, 31-year-old Janey* and her flatmate Seraphina* sit down opposite one another to work from home on their laptops at their kitchen table in their shared rented flat. 
"As we set up the table for work," Janey tells me almost confessionally, "we listen to our horoscopes on Spotify. We put it on loudspeakers and blast it, dancing to the tinkly music. I’m a Sagittarius and Seraphina is a Pisces. We’re both pretending it’s funny – tongue in cheek – but really I’m just like, 'TELL ME IT'S GOING TO BE OKAY TODAY'."
Neither she nor her flatmate wants to be named, such is the millennial woman’s love/hate relationship with the fatalism of the stars. We know that science says real world events are definitely not impacted by the mystic movements of the huge rocks (aka other planets and the moon) suspended in the celestial realm beyond Earth and, yet, we can’t look away from their magic. 
Before the coronavirus crisis swept through the United Kingdom, changing the way we live and relate to one another, these two women never really paid attention to astrology. "Occasionally, we’d do a dramatic reading in a jokey way from a magazine," Janey says dismissively, "but it was never serious." 

As we set up the table for work we listen to our horoscopes on Spotify. We put it on loudspeakers and blast it, dancing to the tinkly music. We're both pretending it's funny – tongue in cheek – but really I'm just like, 'TELL ME IT'S GOING TO BE OKAY TODAY'.

Janey, 31
According to Medium Chat – an online platform through which people can connect with mediums, tarot, astrologers and psychics – they’re not alone. A survey conducted by Medium Chat of 1,003 UK-based adults found that more than one in three are now regularly consulting their horoscopes in an attempt to divine some answers to the uncertainty that this global pandemic has brought to bear upon us all. 
The research comes as the platform announces that it has seen a 104% increase in horoscope enquiries made through its website since the UK lockdown announcement in March.
Now, I’m not going to get into why a platform dedicated to divination – the art of seeing into the future – needed to conduct a survey to know this. But I am going to ask why so many people seem to be turning to the quasi-spiritual world of mysticism to help them navigate the emotional, economic and social precarity that COVID-19 has left in its wake. Particularly when, as far as I’m aware, no astrologers – not even Susan Miller – actually managed to see it coming, causing The New York Times to ask whether coronavirus could "kill" astrology.
Janey and Seraphina are dipping into "Sagittarius Today" and "Pisces Today" respectively. It has become a lockdown ritual that they can’t go without, the £1 Pret filter coffee of isolation. 
"I actually really want her to tell me that there’s some further aim," Janey reflects, dropping her guard, "that I’m going in the right direction. Listening every morning does make me feel like I’m being guided somehow even though I know, rationally, that I think it’s all bollocks." 
Seraphina, also a self-described cynic, chimes in that she feels her daily horoscope can "really motivate" her some days. "If we listen and the lady who does the reading says it’s going to be a good day, I feel more pumped to get through work and make the most of things."
"It makes me psyched for life!" she adds emphatically, with a wry twist in her tone to let me know that she is absolutely playing on the word 'psychic' here.
Janey recently went through a break-up and found that her horoscope was "very relatable" and helpful in encouraging her to "maintain a good headspace". It was helping her so much that she tells me Seraphina actually started encouraging her to listen to it more often so that she didn’t "whinge on" to her flatmate. 
However it can and has gone the other way for these two women on occasion. "Recently," Janey explains, "Seraphina’s horoscope has been very negative, telling her she’s going to have a horrible two months of 'walking uphill' and feeling lonely." Not quite what anyone wants to hear from the conduit they’re trusting to deliver secret messages from the universe to them during lockdown. 
"But at the same time," Janey adds, "mine have been like, 'You worked so hard to get to where you are. Fish. Be good to yourself.' It was funny but then Seraphina started refusing to listen to hers when they got really negative."
At a time when people are looking for answers, it doesn’t require much magical thinking to understand the increasing appeal of astrology. 
Professor Chris French is the head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths University in London. Translated into laywoman’s terms, that means he has devoted his career to studying paranormal beliefs and experiences from astrology to clairvoyance, alien abduction and beyond.
"It’s really important to make a distinction between people who take astrology very seriously, and actually make major decisions on the basis of their horoscope or what their astrologer tells them, and people who might say that they believe in astrology but don't really follow it all that closely," he says. In his experience, the latter – which describes both Janey and Seraphina – is more common. 
A person’s dependence on looking to something outside of themselves for answers, he explains, can almost always be explained by a psychological phenomenon known as the 'locus of control'. 

We tend to see that all sorts of beliefs – including religious beliefs – increase at times of stress and uncertainty.

Professor Chris French
"If you think of a continuum," Chris says, "at one end are people with a very internal locus of control. They, in general, view the way that their lives are as being down to decisions that they have made, actions that they have taken, and so on. People at the other end, with an external locus of control, view their situation in life as down to things that happen to them. It's forces out there that have made their life the way it is." 
In reality, he adds, everyone’s life is a mixture of both. Now, as Chris sees it, there’s nothing wrong with following astrology or checking your horoscope if it makes you feel good. 
"We tend to see that all sorts of beliefs – including religious beliefs – increase at times of stress and uncertainty," he says. "That makes sense. If you’re consulting an astrologer during a difficult time you will at least get some sense for your own satisfaction of what’s around the next corner and, perhaps, some advice on how you can deal with it."
"A horoscope or an astrological reading might give you the illusion of control, which might be psychologically beneficial in the short term," Chris says. "You'll typically find that when people go for astrological readings, they come away feeling quite good about themselves because the astrologer will have said, 'You know, things might be rough at the moment. I can see that you’re going through a bad patch but things will improve. In six months' time I can see you in a much better situation,' which might actually be helpful for somebody, it might give them the courage to take some action that they were thinking about taking anyway." 
Medium Chat’s figures revealed that one in four adults who responded to their survey admitted that they had previously made decisions based on their horoscope reading, with 22% saying a horoscope reading had helped them make up their mind about something.
However Chris cautions that problems arise when you start making big life choices based on that advice. In the end, he says, our relationship with the stars tends to fall back on what’s known as 'confirmation bias' – our predisposition to look for and favour information that confirms what we already believe to be true. This is also why we follow certain people on Instagram and Twitter or read certain newspapers above others. 
This morning I got a notification from the horoscope app Pattern. I’ve been avoiding it throughout lockdown because it keeps telling me I’m in a "testing ground" and that I may "encounter some challenges". No shit, guys. 
But today, in the interests of journalism, I opened it up and read the whole thing: 
"Pretending you’re just like everyone else only makes you feel more alone and alienated. You don’t have to act out in extreme ways, but it’s natural for you to want to have exciting experiences and live a unique life – the more unconventional, the better."
As an Aries – allegedly the most self-obsessed sign in the zodiac, if you believe in horoscopes – this spoke to me. I’ve thought this ever since I listened to Avril Lavigne’s "Anything But Ordinary" on repeat while sulking in my childhood bedroom. 
It made me feel good. Pattern gets me, I thought. I’ve got this. Almost instantly, I stopped myself. "Snap out of it, it's not real. You're very normal," I scolded myself out loud because I am at home, alone, in a pandemic.
During such turbulent times, we feel the push of logic and the pull of the mystic as we continue to suspend our disbelief and indulge in magic because the real world is increasingly overwhelming and difficult to digest – bush fires, a climate crisis, race riots, a global pandemic, clueless politicians. And that’s just the last six months. 
Perhaps we’ll never truly be able to explain our complex relationship with astrology. Then again, as science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said: "Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet." 
*Names have been changed

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