If you’ve ever completely changed your mind about something, or suddenly realized the solution to a problem you’ve been contemplating for a while, you probably had an epiphany–a swift insight that made everything clear. While epiphanies are powerful, they can also feel rare, but it’s possible to take steps to invite more of them into your life, says Erik Dane, distinguished associate professor of management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
“Having epiphanies is counterpoint to today’s disturbing trend toward stability, becoming rigid and entrenched in your views, attitude, and beliefs over time,” he says. “It’s hard to teach a dog new tricks, and epiphanies are cases to the contrary. Suddenly people have an experience that reorients where they’re going in ways they didn’t see coming.”
Epiphanies differ from ideas, says Dane. “You can have many ideas at any point and on any given day. Epiphanies are aha moments that are powerful in shaping our trajectory.”
In his new research published in Academy of Management Discoveries, Dane found that 50% of people report having had at least one epiphany in their lives. Some experience more. “It’s an emotional experience [that] doesn’t happen every day,” he says. “We constantly play around with ideas in our heads, but the rate at which those moments produce an epiphany is rare.”
While not all epiphanies are positive, Dane says people who have them often express appreciation or gratitude. “Epiphanies resolve psychological tension,” he says. “It’s often something someone has been grappling with that leads to an epiphany. Maybe they’re discontent in their career and don’t know where to go. They’re grateful for an experience that resolves the tension.”
How epiphanies happen
Before an epiphany, the mind is playing around with possibilities at an unconscious level, says Dane. “Eventually a powerful solution leaps out, and things finally make sense,” he says. “Because the person can’t see what’s happening in their brain, they try to make sense by looking at circumstances and credit serendipity, instead of unpacking behind-the-scenes cognitive activity. They feel they received the insight instead of being the creator of it.”
The reluctance to take credit is often the delight of being part of a mystery, says Dane. “‘The universe gave it to me’ is a more uplifting narrative than to say, ‘I just figured it out,'” he says.
How to have more
Epiphanies aren’t common, but you can create more of them if you’re willing and open to the prospect of personal change. An epiphany only comes when you’re ready for it.
“We’re often resistant to a solution because it could change our lives or our place within an organization,” says Dane. “The real question is are you psychologically ready for the solution to emerge? If you’re not ready for the consequences, you might have mental barricades that hinder problem solving.”
It’s important to be fully in the moment and more mindful about what is happening around you. If epiphanies are moments of serendipity, we need to pay attention, says Dane.
“Tune into events that befall you instead of blocking them,” he says. “We live on our phones and literally screen out the world. We’re not fully cognitive and are on autopilot these days. It makes me wonder if we’re inadvertently missing events that could prompt epiphanies.”
Epiphanies are powerful because they provide a different window into problem solving. “Solving a problem is not based on how hard it is or how well you are trained or how much you know about the problem,” explains Dane. “Think about what’s holding you back in life. Where are the tensions? What are you resisting right now if tension was not in place? Epiphanies take introspection, but they can give you the answers you need.”