10 Ways to Test Whether You’re Letting Karma Rule Your Life

You’re pushing your way through a crowded shopping mall in order to be able to meet your friend at the promised time and place. Someone gets in your way, though, and in an irritated (but not out of control) voice, you mutter under your breath words to the effect that this person is a rude jerk. By the time you reach the exit and find your friend, the slowpoke is in front of you again. However, your friend greets the offending dawdler with a joyous outburst: “Kathleen, it’s so great to see you!” Of course, Kathleen has already interacted with you and has formed an opinion (not a favorable one). As you try to sneak surreptitiously into the background, she gives you a cold look out of the corner of her eye and you just hope that the conversation doesn’t involve introductions.

This seems like somewhat bad karma to you, but it could definitely have been worse. What if the conversation did turn to introductions, and you were forced to reveal your name? Now what seemed like an interaction between strangers has turned in the awkward byproduct of your own rudeness. True karma would come into play if, further, Kathleen actually knows your boss and if she were so inclined, could cause what was a minor unfortunate incident to take on a much more ominous tone.

Perhaps you can relate in part to this story or events of a similar nature in your own life, and perhaps ones of a more positive nature. You’ve been nice to someone you didn’t know all that well, and now someone else acts nicely to you even though there’s no particular reason for the chain of niceness to be established. The idea of karma or payback has a long tradition in the world’s major religions but belief in karma has received relatively little research attention, as noted by British Columbia’s Cindel White and colleagues in a comprehensive 2017 paper.

White and her fellow colleagues suggest that karma does have the power to shape your everyday experiences in a variety of ways. For example, when you exhibit such behaviors as cooperation, group trust, and other forms of prosocial behavior, White et al. note it may reflect your belief that “karma is a form of supernatural punishment for norm violations, similar to punishment doled out by moralizing gods” (p. 339).

Your belief in karma may take many forms other than being nice to people in the hopes you will be treated nicely in return. You might miss a travel connection, and therefore be forced to wait for the next transport to arrive. In the process, you bump into someone you haven’t seen for a long time, and are able to reestablish an old acquaintanceship. It’s nice to get back together with this person, and before you know it, the two of you are planning to go to a concert. Had you been on time, this pleasant opportunity would not have presented itself. This may not be “karma” in the sense of a moral universe, it does represent the teleological belief that there is some higher power that led you to this seemingly random outcome.

Julia Roberts (mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus): “I try to call my mother, Betty, with more regularity because I think, What if Hazel didn’t call me for two weeks? I’m able to see her mothering now from a different vantage point.”

There may also be a more ominous quality to belief in karma, as the UBC authors note, when it leads to “victim blaming, justification of systemic social inequality, and possibly fatalism” (p. 340). If you believe that people who suffer ill fates somehow deserved to be punished, you will be less sympathetic to their plight. Similarly, if something bad happens to you, such as you trip over a branch in the sidewalk just after you’ve told a bald-faced lie to your boss, this may reflect the magical belief that the gods are seeking retribution. A belief in karma could also take the form of a running account, “such that people see their actions creating gains or losses to a running karmic balance of moral currency” (p. 340). The premise that your actions on earth determine where you end up in the afterlife is the basis for the NBC comedy, “ The Good Place ,” in which the characters learned, after their death, that there was indeed a recording of their good and bad actions on earth that determined their eternal fate (and much hilarity ensued, needless to say).

Whether or not you believe in karma, though, it’s possible that you have the related view that you can jinx yourself into experiencing a negative outcome by virtue of the way you think about your odds of being successful. There’s a new job you would really like to get, and you think your application was exceptionally strong. However, you feel that it you take it for granted or let others know that things are looking good, the opportunity will slip away from you. Unlike karma, belief in a jinx generally involves the desire to prevent something from getting in the way of a desired outcome. If you’re an avid sports fan, you probably go to great lengths to make sure that you don’t cause your team to lose by wearing the wrong hat or shirt, or thinking the game is certain to end in victory because your team takes an early lead.

Research on the process of jinxing is also relatively sparse, despite the fact it seems to permeate many aspects of daily life. One novel approach on the topic examined a specific form of jinxing in the context of a hospital setting. Apparently, according to a London Ontario’s University Hospital research team led by Holger Joswig (2017), “superstition and magical thinking are pervasive and entrenched even among intelligent, educated, and emotionally stable adults” (p. 420). The irrational belief in the power of jinxing plays a dominant role in the perception by healthcare professionals of the odds of having their on-call evenings interrupted with multiple bedside hospital visits and no sleep. Those individuals who seem to create the most jinxing, Joswig et al note, are referred to as “black clouds.” Of course, there is no evidence to support this belief, but that doesn’t seem to stop the believers in the on-call jinx from holding fast to their views. The Canadian researchers decided to test the relationship between beliefs in superstition in general and the beliefs by the neurosurgeons in one unit that the curse of the rough on-call night could be brought about by those supposed jinxsters.

To test the proposal that the more superstitious among the neurosurgeons would perceive themselves more vulnerable to jinxing, the research team solicited 15 neurosurgeons working over a total of 204 night shifts during which they indicated whether or not they had been jinxed by comments made to them such as “I hope you have a quiet night.” The physicians reported having been jinxed nearly 30% over the study interval, and on those jinxed nights, they reported sleeping more poorly, and feeling more negatively about the on-call duty in general. There were no actual differences between jinxed and non-jinxed nights in number of admissions, deaths, and patient visits. Very few of the participants openly admitted, however, to holding superstitious beliefs, so it was not possible to analyze the role of supertitiousness, at least as measured in this study, on the belief that a black cloud’s good wishes had caused them to suffer a particularly miserable on-call night.

Plan not-so-random acts of kindness. Kids need to know that helping others is an everyday practice, not a visit-a-soup-kitchen-at-the-holidays grand gesture. Challenge yours to complete small tasks every week, like throwing away another kid's trash at lunch or raking a neighbor's lawn. Training your children to focus on others helps curb entitlement. "Gratitude becomes woven into who they are," says Jeffrey J. Froh, a coauthor of Making Grateful Kids.

In a third study testing beliefs in karma in relation to a more general tendency to fear the end of life among Taiwanese individuals, Chih-Long Yen, of the National Defense University (Taipei), proposed that “Asians may use belief in fatalism to assuage their terror of death” (p. 820). Karma is closely related to fatalism, as the author notes, because the idea that your actions now determine outcomes in your future life “implies a philosophy of predestination” (p. 821). Yen’s measure of karma involved having the undergraduate participants first read a story in which a man is described as having paid his friends in order to have them avoid killing a dog, following which the man was miraculously saved from a terrible accident. Participants then rated the extent to which they found the story believable and reasonable on two 8-point scales. The average score of approximately 10 (out of a possible 16) indicates relatively strong karma beliefs, as measured in this indirect manner.

We now know, then, that karma and jinxing represent belief systems that can influence the way that people approach their everyday experiences, and also the ways in which the experiences of others are judged. Taking this one step further, you can evaluate your own adherence to karma using these 10 simple questions. Answer as honestly as you can to get a true sense of your own belief system:

1. Do you keep a mental tally of your own good and bad behaviors, hoping that the good will outweigh the bad when your own life’s “tally” is conducted?

2. When you have an important opportunity available to you, do you avoid telling anyone for fear that this will bring bad luck?

3. After you’ve hurt or lied to another person, are you afraid that you’ll somehow be punished by having something go wrong, or having an accident?

4. Upon reading a news story describing an assault, do you automatically conclude that the victim was responsible for getting in harm’s way?

5. When you randomly meet and end up talking to a stranger while in a public place, do you wonder if it was fate that led you to this person?

6. Whether or not you are particularly religious, do you have a fundamental belief that there is some form of higher power that plays a role in your own life?

7. If someone wishes you good luck on an important task, do you become preoccupied with the conviction that you will be doomed to fail?

8. When your favorite sports team has an important game, do you become upset if you can’t find your lucky t-shirt?

9. Even though you know it’s somewhat wrong to feel this way, do you believe that people who live in poverty have brought this on themselves?

Play with your children. Let them choose the activity, and don't worry about rules. Just go with the flow and have fun. That's the name of the game.

10. Do you stay away from people who, in the past, seem to have brought you bad luck?

These 10 questions, based on observations and findings from the studies cited here, can provide you with some guidance as you evaluate how your belief in karma influences your everyday actions. Once you identify these beliefs for what they are, the next step is to free yourself from their hold and allow yourself to feel confident that your own actions, not random forces, are what determine your destiny.