Finding Purpose Mental health

Why we think that everything happens for a reason

Rainbow in the sky
Written by Dr. Ralph Lewis

Many people go through life and face adversity, and believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’ or that things are ‘meant to be.’ Many are certain that their lives are guided by a higher power—if not directly, then subtly and mysteriously—convinced that they see evidence of this in their life events. Subjective evidence can feel extremely compelling. These sorts of beliefs are so widespread that we generally do not consider them irrational or bizarre. They are consistent with our intuitions.

In my psychiatric practice, I’ve observed how this type of thinking can have powerful effects, both positive and negative, on motivation: it can be reassuring and comforting but can also lead to disillusionment, anguish, and feelings of abandonment, leaving some to ask, ‘Why me?’ when cruel adversity happens. I have found it difficult to predict whether religiously or spiritually inclined patients will be consoled or embittered by their faith in a purpose-driven universe when they experience tragedy and suffering.

The alternative belief, that life is random, is disquieting but can be emotionally liberating.

Our intuitions are at odds with the world according to science, which tells us that the universe is spontaneous and unguided. There isn’t a plan or purpose. Things don’t happen for intended reasons unless of course they’re caused by intentional agents—such as us.

And therein lies the reason why people think that random occurrences are planned. Humans are intentional agents who must detect and interpret the actions of other intentional agents.

Human brains are pattern-seeking[i] and agency-detecting[ii]. We evolved these tendencies as social animals, to be very adept at recognizing purposeful, intentional action on the part of other people, as well as on the part of predators or prey. These traits were likely favored by natural selection because of their survival value. We’re so adept at identifying patterns and deliberate intention that we overshoot, seeing meaningful patterns in meaningless ‘noise’ and attributing agency to inanimate objects and random natural events. This can lead people to believe that such events are controlled by supernatural agents.

Furthermore, our story-telling brains (left hemisphere language centers) have a natural proclivity for coherent stories—grand narratives with an overarching point and a satisfying end: things must happen for specific reasons, they must have a point. Our brains are not satisfied with randomness.

The normal cognitive biases and inferential errors that lead us to over-identify pattern and purpose are magnified in severe mental disorders, rendering these biases and errors all the more obvious—human nature is writ large in such disorders, in very illuminating ways. Psychiatric disorders help us understand normally subtle human traits and cognitive habits by amplifying or distorting them. Psychosis and mania, for example, magnify ad absurdum the general human tendency to over-identify patterns and to perceive deliberate intention in random events, especially in self-referential ways.

In states of psychosis, people tend to develop blatantly false, unshakable beliefs—delusions—which can range from plausible, yet mistaken, beliefs to extremely bizarre ideas. The most common types of delusions are referred to as delusions of (self-) reference. These delusions involve the belief that unrelated, coincidental, or innocuous events, actions, or objects refer to the individual in a personal way. Patients who are delusional regularly recount to me their beliefs that “everything is happening for a reason” and it’s all about them. They detect hidden messages or signs and tell me that certain events couldn’t possibly be mere coincidence. They are convinced that these refer to them—in paranoid or sometimes grandiose ways. These patients present all kinds of evidence that they consider irrefutable, in support of such assertions. The problem is that they are connecting too many dots. Arbitrary things become infused with importance and meaning when they should not be.

We all tend to notice things more when they are personally relevant. For example, a woman who is pregnant or trying to conceive may experience a sudden increase in baby product commercials on television, and references to babies, childbirth and pregnancy everywhere she turns. For most people, their automatic reality-testing ability stops them from believing that someone in the broadcasting studio deliberately placed the ads on TV for them personally—that would be delusional. Some, however, may believe that it is some sort of “omen”—a sign, for example, that a fertility treatment is about to be successful. Somehow this does not seem bizarre to many mentally healthy people.

The brain mechanism of delusions is partly understood: it probably has a lot to do with over-activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is a central player in the brain’s attentional and motivational pathways. A spike in dopamine transmission marks a stimulus as important, making the stimulus more salient—noteworthy. A person with over-activity of their dopamine transmission may think that too many things are salient, mistaking irrelevant stimuli as personally relevant[iii]. For example, a psychotic individual might see the same model of car drive past twice in a few minutes and construe this as evidence of surveillance. Many street drugs can induce psychosis by surging dopamine. Antipsychotic medications are dopamine blockers.

Delusions are in many ways just extreme versions of normal human cognitive errors. In fact, thinking that events are intended, with self-referential significance, seems to be the default form of thinking. Over-riding these intuitions requires skeptical critical thinking—also known as science.

Science tells us that the universe is fundamentally random and purposeless.

Many people worry that if the universe doesn’t have a purpose, neither do we. And they’re mystified as to how all the complexity we see around us could have come into being in a purposeless way—through unguided random processes.

A random world, which according to all the scientific evidence and despite our intuitions is the actual world we live in, is too often misconstrued as nihilistic, demotivating, or devoid of morality and meaning. It needn’t be. The scientific worldview of an unguided, spontaneous universe can be awe-inspiring and foundational to building a more compassionate society. More on this in future blogs…

[i] Shermer, Michael. “Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise.” Scientific American, November 2008.

[ii] Shermer, Michael. “Agenticity. Why People Believe That Invisible Agents Control the World.” Scientific American, May 2009.

[iii] Kapur, S. “Psychosis as a State of Aberrant Salience: A Framework Linking Biology, Phenomenology, and Pharmacology in Schizophrenia.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 160, no. 1 (2003): 13–23.

About the author

Dr. Ralph Lewis

Dr. Lewis is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. His clinical work focuses particularly on two areas: youth psychiatry and psycho-oncology.

» Read his blog series, Finding Purpose

Dr. Lewis is the author of Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn't.