How Does Synchronicity Fit Within Psychology?
Updated: Aug 1
Different areas of psychology use meaningful coincidences.
Because meaningful coincidences take place in general populations, they are also likely to take place within psychology.
While explanations for synchronicity and serendipity are being debated, their usefulness appears to be generally accepted.
Data suggest that meaningful coincidences are useful in psychotherapy, positive psychology, career counseling, and creativity.
The varying degrees to which personal agency contributes to synchronicity and serendipity deserves further study.
Research suggests that synchronicity and serendipity are quite common. The valid and reliable Weird Coincidence Survey demonstrates their commonality in general populations as does the Cambridge University Uncertainty website. Their use in psychology is addressed in this post.
Regarding explanations, Stanford statistician Persi Diaconis (1989) declared that “In large populations any strange thing can happen.” British statistician David Hand (2014) concurred and offered principles by which human beings create meaningful coincidences. Writing for Psychology Today magazine, Psychiatrist Ralph Lewis concurs that randomness is the best explanation for these strange events.
Other proposed explanations include divine intervention, chaos and complexity theory, quantum mechanics, fractals, personal agency, and the psychosphere among many others. Whatever the explanation, most theoreticians including those who support the randomness explanation agree that coincidences can be useful.. This post outlines some of the many uses of meaningful coincidences within psychology.
Founded by Carl Jung who coined the term synchronicity, Analytical Psychology incorporates meaningful coincidences into psychotherapy (Cambray, 2009, 2011) Preliminary research suggests that synchronicity can aid progress in psychotherapy (Roesler and Reefschlager, 2022). Others have found that synchronicity during the treatment of alcoholism may be useful as well as in the treatment of prolonged grieving. Chris Mackey emphasizes the necessity of differentiating psychosis from spiritual experiences in people reporting a high numbers of synchronicities.
Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the character strengths and behaviors that allow individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose—to move beyond surviving to flourishing. Theorists and researchers in the field have sought to identify the elements of a good life. They have also proposed and tested practices for improving life satisfaction and well-being. In his book The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity, Mackey (2019) suggests that people can enhance their mental health through the use of meaningful coincidences and that synchronicity can aid the psychotherapeutic process by helping patients to gain a sense of engagement with their lives.
Writing in the academic journal Current Psychology, Russo-Netzer, & Icekson, (2022) also suggest that synchronicity helps people find meaning and purpose in life. They have developed the Synchronicity Awareness and Meaning-Detection Scale to quantify their observations.
Career decisions are influenced by chance events Chance events were reported as influencing the career decisions in a majority of people in one sample.( Bright, Pryor and Harpam, 2005) and confirmed by others. Management professor Albert Bandura’s research revealed that a range of chance encounters determine the outcome of people’s lives. Career counselors may be taught happenstance learning theory with its emphasis on perpetual openness to new opportunities. The happenstance learning theory has roots in behavioral psychology, ties to emotion theory, and moves in the direction of positive psychology in terms of resilience and adaptation to a rapidly changing world. (Krumholz, Levin, and Krumboltz, 1999)
At both the personal and organizational levels serendipity can play an effective role in positive organizational change (Busch, 2022)—creating optimal circumstance for new ideas to emerge. Having received the first PhD in synchronicity and leadership, Philip Merry trains leaders in how to increase and utilize chance events to maximize organization outcomes.
The creative process often involves exploration and experimentation, which can lead to unexpected outcomes and serendipitous solutions. Additionally, creativity often involves allowing a certain degree of openness and flexibility, which can lead to unexpected discoveries and insights. In this way, creativity and serendipity can be seen as two sides of the same coin, working together to foster discovery and innovation.
Many discoveries and innovations in the arts as well as the sciences have turned on serendipitous events. (Van Andel, 1994)
Since data shows that meaningful coincidence occur in many aspects of life, it is likely that they occur in additional aspects of psychology beyond those described here.
It is also likely that different categories of meaningful coincidence require different explanations, that one explanation does not fit all. Personal agency remains a question in the elucidation of explanations. (Beitman, 2022) One challenge for psychology researchers is to map out the varying degrees to which people experiencing meaningful coincidences contribute to their occurrence.
Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller, “Methods of Studying Coincidences,” Journal of the American Statistical Association 84, no. 408 (December 1989).
David J. Hand, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and RareEvents Happen Every Day (New York: Scientific American, 2014).
Cambray, Joseph. “Moments of Complexity and Enigmatic Action: A Jungian View of the Therapeutic Field” Journal of Analytical Psychology, June 2011. ———.
Synchronicity: Nature and Psyche in an Interconnected Universe. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2009.
Roesler, C., & Reefschläger, G. I. (2022). Jungian psychotherapy, spirituality, and synchronicity: Theory, applications, and evidence base. Psychotherapy, 59(3), 339–350. https://doi.org/10.1037/pst0000402
Mackey, C. (2019) The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity: Enhance your mental health with the power of coincidence, 2nd Edition, Watkins Publishing, London.
Russo-Netzer, P., Icekson, T. Engaging with life: Synchronicity experiences as a pathway to meaning and personal growth. Curr Psychol 41, 597–610 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-019-00595-1
Krumbholz Mitchell, K.E., Levin, A.S., Krumboltz, J.D. Planned Happenstance: Constructing Unexpected Career Opportunities. Journal of Counseling and Development. 77: 115–124, 118.
Busch, C (2022) Connect the Dots: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck. New York: Penguin
Van Andel, Pek. “Anatomy of the Unsought Finding. Serendipity: Origin, History, Domains, Traditions, Appearances, Patterns and Programmability.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 45, no. 2 (June 1994): 631–48.
Beitman, BD (2022) Meaningful Coincidences: How and why synchronicity and serendipity happen. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions