In 2017 things stopped going to plan. I was 28 and the plan had been: job, partner, house. At the beginning of the year, I had a job and a partner and I figured the house would follow. Within a few months, though, I had quit the job, the 10-year relationship was over and the house… well, that was more of a pipe dream than ever before.
Truth be told, I was a bit of a mess. My manager was sympathetic: “Ten years is a long time to be with someone, longer than some marriages, no wonder you’re upset,” she said one time when she caught me crying at my desk. She sent me home for the day but I had the sense my life was unspooling - where once there had been certainty and brightness, now there was nothing, just the pitch-black pit of an unknown, unknowable future. So I went online and began reading my horoscope.
I discovered horoscopes as a precocious 12-year-old growing up in the north of England. I enjoyed the sense of order they inspired and the version of myself that they reflected back: a Leo, show-offy and proud but also generous and loyal. Still by 18, I’d grown out of them - I’d read one or two every now and then but that was it.
Later, in my 20s, an old boss told me about how, early in her career, her job had been to invent the daily horoscopes for a national newspaper. “They’re completely fictional,” she said to me, when I’d joked about liking them. “Made to entertain silly women.” 'Silly' was exactly how I felt during those desperate days in 2017 but I needed something. So I'd read four, five, six - my appetite was seemingly insatiable and then, as if by cosmic intervention, I'd feel an uptick in spirits. "You’ve been looking for something to give you the answers…" read one (true). "You’re entering a phase of great change," said another (so true). "The universe has a plan…" said a third - jackpot. I felt soothed.
It wasn’t difficult to find them - over the past few years, more and more websites, particularly those aimed at young women, have started publishing them. In 2015, Broadly - VICE’s women-focused offering - launched in the US and UK, with a dedicated horoscopes' section. In the US, The Cut and Lena Dunham’s (now closed) Lenny Letter - also sites aimed at young women - carried them too (The Cut's horoscope content reportedly got a 150% more hits in 2017 than the year before - prompting The Guardian to ask why so many millennials were turning to astrology).
Memes have proliferated on Instagram with accounts dedicated to exploring astrology (the hashtag has more than three million posts) through the language of pop culture and the internet.
Last year, when politics and culture magazine The Atlantic did a deep-dive into US horoscope culture, LA-based astrologer Chani Nicholas, said: “...there’s something that’s happened in the last five years that’s given it [astrology] an edginess, a relevance for this time and place, that it hasn’t had for a good 35 years. Millennials have taken it and run with it.”
And why might this be happening? Well, from a purely practical perspective, this movement has one big thing going for it: most horoscopes are free to read, making them accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Better-known astrologers, though, do a healthy trade in private readings and 'birth charts.' These charts detail the exact placement of the planets at the time a person is born, as well as how these planetary alignments are supposedly likely to influence them throughout their life. And an astrologer can charge hundreds of pounds for these services.
Beyond the simple fact of accessibility, in The Atlantic piece, journalist Julie Beck points to the fact we may be living through a period of backlash after the age of big data, hyper-connectivity and hard science. “This sort of reactionary cultural 180 has happened before — after the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality and the scientific method in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Romantic movement found people turning towards intuition, nature and the supernatural. It seems we may be at a similar turning point."
Broadly’s editor, Zing Tsjeng, has another take: “It's no surprise to me that young people are turning to mysticism and the occult, including astrology. With the ongoing housing crisis, job insecurity and political instability, it seems like those in charge no longer have the answers. So what's the harm in having a bit of fun and looking to the stars for guidance? Our horoscopes have proven so popular with readers that we've expanded our offering into video, garnering hundreds of thousands of views across YouTube and social media."
And I suppose, if you look at the world in the last few years, the see-saw of global politics has indeed left many young people feeling unsteady. Not to mention the fact that many millennials came of age in the post-recession years. In 2009 (the youngest millennials would have been 12 and the oldest 27), when the UK economy went into recession for the first time in almost 20 years, newspapers were calling them "the lost generation". If, as Zing theorises, uncertain times breed superstitious behaviour, then it’s little wonder that growing up in a time of such flux has left some of us feeling the need to turn to a higher power for guidance.
It was when 29-year-old Anita* moved to San Francisco for work that she began to take closer look at horoscopes. “I was always a bit interested,” she tells me. “But never seriously. They were fun to read but I didn’t really believe them.” If she was flicking through a magazine, she'd stop on the page with the horoscopes “but I never actively looked for them". Her time on America’s west coast, though, proved to be a turning point.
As well as being the home of tech giants like Google and Facebook, she found San Francisco a particularly magical place. “Things like witchcraft and crystals were taken quite seriously by people I met,” she explains. “I was working for a tech company, so I didn’t expect it, but among the staff there was a lot of talk of fate and how different cosmic energies were affecting their work. It was really casual, in a meeting someone would be like ‘I’m a typical, shy Cancerian, so excuse my poor public speaking’. In my first week, someone recommended a good free app for horoscopes, so I downloaded it.”
Two months after arriving in San Francisco, though, tragedy struck. “My dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer,” she explains quietly. “My mum had died four years before, and it felt like our family was still in recovery from that shock. As soon as I found out about Dad, I got on a flight back to the UK - I needed to be near him and my two sisters. I think it was in this period that my horoscope habit took hold.”
Anita stayed in the UK for three weeks, to see the start of her dad’s treatment. His prognosis was positive but each night as she was going to sleep, fresh waves of grief washed over her. “I had gotten to a place where the pain of losing my mum wasn’t so sharp any more and this just brought everything back up,” she explains. “So I started to read horoscopes - not just mine but those of my dad and my sisters. I’d spread them out across the day so that whenever I felt miserable about the future and what was happening, I’d find a horoscope to read. The language was always soothing - any references to ‘tough times’ were followed by something like ‘but brighter days are on the horizon'. It would give me just enough hope - and the feeling there was some cosmic purpose behind all this pain.”
As clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew explains, this kind of thinking isn’t uncommon in times of stress or great change. “This is definitely something I’ve come across,” she says. “All of us will have certain superstitions and rituals, or we might engage in seemingly irrational behaviours, all of which make us feel ‘safe'.”
Many sports people are well known for their pre-match rituals; from wearing ‘lucky’ socks to tapping parts of their body, and this kind of ‘magical thinking’ has actually been shown to help their performances. Believing that a higher power - be that luck, fate, God or the stars - has your back, can make you feel more confident and that you are good at what you’re about to do.
“In grief, having faith that everything happens for a reason or that everything will work out can be helpful,” continues Dr Andrew. “It can be the difference between working through your feelings and lapsing into despair.”
Like Anita, my search came at a time when I needed a double shot of faith. I was never religious - beyond a few outings to Orthodox church with my Romanian nana - but I suddenly found myself untethered. I’d quit my job, I was single for the first time in my entire adult life. So what next?
At first, this little horoscope habit didn’t seem so bad. I worried constantly about things like how I’d pay my rent if I didn’t find any freelance work, or whether mutual friends would stop talking to me now I was no longer with my ex. I worried until the dread felt like a physical ache. I could actually point to where the pain was, it had taken-up residence in my solar plexus, right next to my heartbreak. And so reading that the universe had a plan for me, that my pain could be explained away by Venus retrograde - an astrological cycle said to cause a feeling of chaos - felt good. It made me think that everything would work out, that I just needed to keep going.
But for Anita, things got much more intense. “Back in San Fran, I got my birth chart properly read for the first time,” says Anita. “It cost $350 (£270) but it felt like a huge revelation, like there were parts of myself that I’d never understood before. I remember feeling so positive at the end. Basically, it involved me sending the details of where and when I was born to an experienced astrologer, who then charted the position of the planets at that exact moment and explained how they would influence who I became and how I reacted to my experiences.” The astrologer, Anita explains, then spent two hours explaining her findings. “It was just this amazing, spiritual experience. It was even a little therapeutic.”
Over the next few days, Anita kept listening to the recording of the session. “The overarching message was that everything would work out - and I just clung on to that.” She started paying closer attention to the stars. “I started marking on my calendar when different planets were going retrograde, when there were intense new moons I had to look out for.” And it was helpful, until it wasn’t.
“The first time I decided not to go to work because of something I’d read in a horoscope, I rationalised it by thinking I probably needed a day off anyway,” says Anita. “There was a planetary alignment suggesting I’d get into some difficulties at work. I was stressed and missing my family - my dad was better, but still not fully well - I didn’t want to risk messing up. So I took two days off. As it happened, there was a system shutdown which would have been a nightmare for me to deal with - at home I holed-up with ice cream and films and felt like I’d made the right decision to trust the stars.”
Over the next few months, Anita’s reliance on astrology intensified. “It took over my life. I would map my calendar around the stars and get anxious if I had to do anything that didn’t fit with my astro-plans.” As the months wore on, Anita’s world began to shrink.
“There were people I started to avoid because our signs might make us clash. There were days when I wouldn’t leave the house because it wasn’t a promising day. I’d just close the curtains, turn on the TV and sit quietly hoping that no bad news would find me.”
By this point, she was working out her own predictions using online astrological calculators. “I remember one time refusing to commit to a new project because it was Mercury retrograde, a time when communications go awry and you shouldn’t really make plans for the future. After a week, my manager asked why I hadn’t made a start. I didn’t want to admit it was because of astrology, so I just said I hadn’t had time. She got annoyed, told me that my work had been slipping and that she expected me to start immediately.”
That night Anita went home and, in the watery glow of her laptop, spent hours poring over charts trying to work out what to do, and whether everything would be ok. “At about 3am, tired and overwhelmed, I called my sister in a panic. I don’t think I was making much sense, but she could tell how distressed I was.”
As Dr Andrew explains: “Like anything, it’s possible to become reliant on astrology. And if it gets out of hand, the behaviour which once made us feel better can quickly become the source of our anxiety.” For Anita, the concern in her sister’s voice was like a cold dose of reality. “I looked around at all these charts I’d pinned to my walls and I just kept thinking, ‘how did I become this person?’.”
I found myself asking a similar question about halfway through 2017. I’d got into the habit of reading five or six horoscopes every day. If I couldn’t find one which made me feel better, or like my life wasn’t going off the rails, I’d fall into the grip of despair. It sounds so ridiculous. It was so ridiculous. But I felt helpless.
“I think the mania for astrology is a sign that some young people feel like they can’t confide in anyone,” says Dr Andrew. “Grief, loss, anxiety - these are big emotions. And ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ are big questions. In the past we had religion, we went to church and explored these big ideas but now not as many people do.
“With horoscopes, you’ve got this friendly voice dealing with some of life’s biggest questions. They offer a sense of context but because of that, they can be misused.”
After that phone call with her sister, Anita decided it was time to move back to the UK. “I’d been away for a year by that point, and had lost sight of who I was. I threw away all my charts and calendars. I knew that if I took them with me, I’d never break the habit. But I do still check my horoscope via various apps.” She is having counselling for anxiety, which she says has helped manage her dependence on astrology.
I stopped looking at my horoscopes as I pieced my new life together. My freelance career went ok (I can still pay my rent). My friends stayed my friends, despite the break-up and the feeling of dread about the future slowly eased. And so I realised I had to stop relying on astrology to manage my worries. I can't remember the last time I read one that I didn't immediately forget, which perhaps shows how different I feel now, compared to then.
My hunch is that the increasing popularity of horoscopes is somehow linked to our worsening mental health. But not because we’re necessarily looking for answers. It's more, where once it was seen as a little lame and desperate to be ‘into’ astrology, now it has become a second language, a way for so many of us to communicate feelings or tendencies we once thought incommunicable. If you feel sad for no apparent reason, being able to ascribe some meaning to your feelings - because Mars is in a square off with Venus, or because your sign makes you more prone to sadness - might not be scientific, or, in the long run, particularly helpful. But, as Dr Andrew points out, “at least it allows you to put what’s going on inside you into words.”
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, information about help and support is available here.