Synchronicity in a jar

At a recent milestone birthday, I asked my guests to bring me a written story about a meaningful coincidence as a gift. If they had such a story, they could put it in my synchronicity jar when they arrived. Apart from knowing I’d enjoy reading the stories, I thought this would offer a rare opportunity to get a more realistic indication of how many people experienced synchronicity, what type of coincidences stood out to them and perhaps, what kind of impact it might have had on them. I was also interested in what kinds of intriguing experiences my friends might have had that I had not previously heard, despite almost all of them knowing of my interest in synchronicity. In my experience, people are often careful to keep such stories to themselves, lest others think them a bit weird.

I thought of this as a rare and gratifying opportunity to do some informal real-world research. Of course it was much more fun personally because it involved my friends, and I looked forward to getting to know some of them that little bit more. I knew they would likely be more open in their revelations than they otherwise might have been. They would be inclined to indulge me — it was my birthday present after all!

I’m not suggesting that the results I describe below are representative of the general population, although I believe they would not deviate far from the norm. It could be said that I would tend to choose friends who are more interested in synchronicity. However, I doubt this was the case as there were relatively few friends over the years with whom I’d openly discussed my transpersonal beliefs at any length. Many of my friends are members of a broad social group with strong links to the medical profession, which hardly promotes an interest in mystical or spiritual themes.

Of the 100 guests who attended, 39 contributed a story for my synchronicity jar involving coincidences that were very striking to them. Given that several people described circumstances that they were also sharing on behalf of their partner, this suggests that just over 40% of my fellow partygoers could actively relate to the notion of synchronicity. There were also a few who attended who had previously told me of a synchronistic experience that they chose not to contribute to my jar for whatever reason, such as simply not having got around to writing a note.

That broadly seems to fit the common notion that around 40 to 50% of people experience paranormal phenomena, with synchronicity being a more common example.

There were several main overlapping themes in the stories. Most commonly, they related to a sense of connection with others (31) of which many could be described as a form of propinquity (18). Many also seemed to involve incidents that helped solve problems (17). Many people described incidents that were strongly affirming of a course of action they were taking at the time (13), often implying that their general sense of life direction had been bolstered (8).

Common examples included timely encounters with someone who was uncannily well equipped to help solve a problem (10), and/or who helped them get in touch with someone they wanted to see but was hard to find (6). Several others mentioned a remarkable incident that answered a specific question they had in mind (5).

Six people specifically mentioned examples of coincidences that helped them feel on a wavelength with their partner, such as by being about to say something to their spouse and having them say it first, or ringing their partner and getting an engaged signal because they had dialled first. Two people wrote of the uncanny circumstances in which they had met their partner, evoking the synchronistic matchmaker.

Five examples included number synchronicity, such as seeing 11:11 on a clock. Two examples included remarkable circumstances that saved a person’s life.

Five people directly referred to religious beliefs, describing circumstances in which they felt profoundly supported or guided by God. The Christian notion of a guardian angel seemed very relevant to these examples.

I thought all of the stories seemed relevant with around a third reflecting strong synchronicity, but this is of course a subjective judgment. The following examples will allow others to make their own judgment as to the degree of uncanniness.

Opening a card from my fellow Aquarian friend, Rosemary, I felt the project had got off to a good start. Ro had included a clipping of that week’s horoscope: “It’s Aquarius season… Readjust for high-vibe synchronicity, significant encounters, sped-up zeitgeist compliance and reinvention at warp speed… The dynamic is illuminated and obvious.” I had never previously seen the word synchronicity in a horoscope, despite having read hundreds.

I enjoyed the elegant simplicity of Rochelle’s description that “Synchronicity is the universe saying yes”. She clearly finds it useful, adding, “My angels send me signs in the form of number sequences that I see on clocks, licence plates, etc. I feel the protection and guidance of the universe when these events occur”. I had previously known that Rochelle was a spiritual person, but this gave me a little more understanding and sense of connection with her around the theme.

Kerrie provided an example of propinquity from a week earlier. She went to add Denver to her phone’s world clock to gauge the time difference with her daughter, Catherine, who was flying there. At that precise second, a text came through from Catherine, saying “Just landed safely in Denver. I’ll give you a call over the next couple of days.”

Further such examples involved improbable encounters with aquaintances in a large foreign city or country. Jenny described unexpectedly running into a daughter’s friend in a Paris boutique, the only acquaintance she and her husband knew who lived in that city. Such an example might be easier to dismiss as a chance occurrence given the that some such surprise encounters across a lifetime might be expected. The following examples are a little harder to dismiss.

Aidan told his friend Jane, a staff member of the university he attended as a student, that he intended to travel through the US on the way to London. Jane suggested that he might meet her friend, Paul, who was travelling in the US. Aidan thought that this was not like, especially as he didn’t know what Paul looked like. Some time later, after entering a hostel kitchen in Washington DC, Aidan asked a young man there whether he spoke English. They soon learnt that they came from the same Australian region. Upon learning Aidan was a student and asking which university he attended (with around 50,000 students and 4000 staff), Paul asked Aidan whether he knew his friend, Jane, who worked there. Jane’s suggestion of their possible encounter no longer seemed so preposterous.

Aidan’s wife, Yogi, reminded me of a similarly unlikely situation involving myself. When Yogi learnt that her friend, Lily, was heading to China, she suggested to Lily that she might run into me there, as I was visiting some similar regions at a similar time. Some weeks later, Lily was walking in a hotel foyer in Shanghai, reflecting on their travels and commenting to her friend about how heavily populated China was. She then chuckled and told her companion that a friend (Yogi) had suggested she might run into an acquaintance in China, an amusingly improbable suggestion that they likened to finding a needle in a haystack. Lily turned at that point and immediately saw me in the foyer. Yogi described that Lily was one of two people with whom she shared the experience of often thinking of that person, just before they called.

The note writer’s brother, Tim had improbably run into his uncle in each of London, when he was the next person who walked in to a London pub, New York, when he happened to be sitting at the next restaurant table, and twice in Melbourne, when his uncle visited from Mildura about six hours drive away. Tim’s uncle said each time as a running joke, “Tim, you can find me anywhere”. It no doubt added to the warmth of their final connection when years later. Tim had travelled to visit his dying uncle, ravaged by cancer, who welcomed him with his usual line, “Tim, you can find me anywhere”. Perhaps the wry humour in acknowledging their uncanny connection helped bring them both some comfort.

After relocating from Perth in Western Australia, my work colleague, Shelagh, described how she’d been holidaying on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne with her family, when her husband, Simon, asked what one of her old Melbourne school friends from was up to. Shelagh hadn’t seen her for several years, but knew something of her current circumstances from social media. They decided to get lunch and walked through dense tea-trees for a short cut rather than following the usual path around. They soon came to a clearing with a picnic table where they happened upon that very friend having lunch with her husband and children. They had stopped for a takeaway lunch on route whilst travelling in the opposite direction. As Shelagh described, the reconnection was warm and nostalgic and reminded her of the deep friendship reserves she had to draw on after relocating.

Julie and Antony were once having a barbecue dinner at a small yacht club where there were only two other couples who joined them, one of whom they’d never met, and the other whom they knew vaguely after buying a house from a parent. They soon learnt of a mutual connection of not only having lived in the same suburb, and not only the same street, but that they belonged to the only three families to have lived in the same house over the past 90 years. Their connection mirrored the perfect triangle made by the three moored boats.

Angie described that she once had a dream about a close teenage friend she hadn’t seen for twenty years needing her support. He rang out of the blue the next day after unexpectedly meeting her husband whilst at work. He suggested that she also visit the next time her husband came in. It turned out that he was recently divorced and greatly appreciated the support that unexpectedly came his way.

Julie reminded us of the shared personal example of how our second born children were born on the same day. That pleasant coincidence helped create one of our most strong and enduring family friendships. The main synchronicity, however, was evident when Julie and Sue’s mothers visited the hospital for their grandchildren’s first bath. They had been in hospital together when they gave birth to their own children a generation earlier.

The following stories, which also seemed to defy the odds, described how synchronistic experience helped solve a problem or dilemma.

Simon wrote how he once saw a Melbourne physiotherapist who asked him, “Have you ever damaged this knee?” The physiotherapist seemed quite surprised when Simon confidently denied any history of such injury. After placing suction cups on his knee, the physiotherapist briefly went to see to another patient. Simon looked around room until his gaze settled at a painting on the wall. He felt a dawning recognition.

After the physiotherapist returned, Simon asked him if he knew the building in the picture that he happened to recognize from his childhood. The physiotherapist responded that he had done some of his training at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary. Apparently Simon’s father had taken him to that very hospital when his family lived in Edinburgh after he’d hurt his knee in a game of soccer. They were both dumbfounded at the uncanny resolution of the diagnostic mystery, on the walls of a treatment room on the other side of the world. Simon had in fact sustained a previous knee injury. Simon remarked that this experience helped him connect more directly with positive memories of his middle childhood when he lived in Scotland for three years.

A more straightforward example was a work colleague, Nicolette, telling her partner, Matt, that she would like to visit our house for renovation inspiration, and receiving the invitation to my party the next day. She was especially pleased that the party was going to be held at home.

Graeme had been on a bike ride with friends when they took a regular break at a small country store. A four-wheel drive vehicle towing a horse float pulled up, smoke billowing from underneath. When Graeme went over to see if he could help another vehicle pulled up with the sign “Combined Clutch and Brake”. Graeme said to the driver, “Thank God you’re here – perfect timing!” Fortunately the expert quickly addressed the problem that could have been very serious if the vehicle had travelled much further and the brakes had seized. In this case it simply involved releasing the handbrake that the float driver had inadvertently left on from their distant home.

My daughter, Ellie, reminded me how she had asked me on my return from a trip to Findhorn in Scotland to guess what songs she was singing, coincidentally given to her by Angie, who was then her singing teacher. She gave me the clue that it was a Disney character. After a moment of feeling up against the odds, especially as I’m not well versed in Disney songs, I responded with certainty that it was The Little Mermaid. That proved correct.

The clue from the universe had just seemed too coincidental to be merely chance. On the plane I had sat next to a young woman who played The Little Mermaid for the previous eight months at DisneySea in Tokyo. She was en route to Hong Kong, and we had seemed to form a more meaningful connection than usual through long discussions on transpersonal themes during the flight. It was apparently the only Disney theme park at the time that staged that particular full show, so I’d understood her to be the main perfomer of Little Mermaid songs in the world at that time.

Other inklings can have more powerful consequences. Michael’s Dad, Barry, was due to return from Phoenix after a marketing conference that finished early. This prompted his boss to ask him to purchase earlier tickets for the flight back. Barry decided to change the airline as they were booked to fly on for an alternative airline with shared stopovers apart from the busy Sydney airport that he wished to avoid. They waited on the Honolulu tarmac for the flight they would have been on to depart, taking off immediately afterward. When they landed in Auckland, they find out that a cargo door had calamitously failed on the other plane and led to explosive decompression. Nine people in business class were sucked from the plane, their bodies never found. They included passengers in business class seats that Barry and his boss might otherwise have been sitting in, as they were in equivalent seat numbers on their changed flight to those that were sucked from the other plane.

Another colleague, Melissa, described how her stepfather’s prized clock had stopped close to his time of death, within the day or so that had lapsed between visitors. The family suspected, without means of proof, that the frozen 11:42pm on the clock was the actual time he died. What they did know was that the clock surprisingly started again exactly a year to the day that her stepfather died. The clock had been kept despite not working owing to its strongly sentimental connection to its owner.

Two people placed a complimentary birthday note in the jar, but lamented not having a story to pass on.However, Alison inadvertently provided an amusing example on the night. She and another friend who lived well apart had arrived in exactly the same red dress. Of all the guests, I especially enjoyed having my photo taken with Alison and Sandra, whom I enjoyed referring to as The Synchronicity Sisters.

Mark’s note reminded me of an incident with him ten years earlier when we were kayaking on Corio Bay that I would describe as synchronistic. For some reason, as we paddled I made reference to a friend, Ian, feeling curiously uncertain why I did so. Even at the time I was conscious that what I was saying did not flow readily from our conversation and there would likely be no connection between Mark and Ian. They had always lived in different cities and mostly in different countries.

I had even mentioned Ian’s surname, which seemed an unnecessary detail. Mark immediately asked whether Ian had a father who lived in a coastal town, two hours away. I responded that he did. Mark then explained that his father had been Ian’s father’s best man when they were friends in England about fifty years earlier. I would count that as an example beyond chance.

My friends wrote of many other examples, several of which were as strong as those described here. Furthermore, I have not even included the stories of my dear spiritual friend and mentor Ross, who taught me more about synchronicity that anyone else I’ve met. His previous stories deserve a whole chapter of their own, so I’ve written one (see Chapter 12 of The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity. Also listen to the radio segment recorded on 17th July in this blog.)

I believe the examples in this chapter go beyond the bland examples of coincidences that skeptics commonly cite when they talk about selective attention or hindsight bias or other dismissive terms to deny other people’s numinous experience. It is not enough to discredit the notion of synchronicity by dismissing the odds of any one of these individual stories as attributable to random chance – they need to be dismissed in their totality.

However, just as important as any objective reality in gauging the significance of such events, we need to consider their psychological impact on the person experiencing them. Consistent with long-established psychological theory, we know that it is not so much an event that has an impact on people, but how they perceive it, interpret it, and respond to it. It is the person’s perceptions and interpretation that will have the greatest impact on their mental health.

Therefore, even though I have focused on the content of the synchronistic stories to highlight their uncanniness, it is just as important to consider their emotional tone. All the stories conveyed the sense of at least a mildly fortuitous event. Just over half of the stories suggested that they were unambiguously positive experiences for the person who wrote about them (21), usually by enhancing connections with others or solving a problem. Almost a further quarter conveyed at least a mildly positive reaction (8). A further quarter (9) mainly emphasized the person feeling surprised, or more typically, dumbfounded, such as when hearing the circumstances of someone’s life being saved or a clock stopping around someone’s death. Those examples mainly gave a sense of evoking curiosity and wonder. Sometimes they simply provided a sense of amusement, such as repeated encountering an uncommon name.

No example was written in a way to reflect a negative tone or outcome, but perhaps the context of a birthday gift rendered people less likely to offer a more negative example.

In summary, this little experiment reinforces my impression that many people experience remarkable coincidences that are very meaningful to them personally. We might not hear much about those experiences, even if we are good friends with them and they know we are interested in the topic. Discussing transpersonal or spiritual topics is not very fashionable in our culture. But that makes the experiences no less powerful.

I believe the examples in this chapter go beyond the bland examples of coincidences that skeptics commonly cite when they talk about selective attention or hindsight bias or other dismissive terms to deny other people’s numinous experience. There were dozens of other examples, several of which were as strong as those described here.

Positive psychology highlights the benefits of any experience that helps evoke positive emotions. I believe that asking people about their synchronistic experiences opens up an additional avenue of evoking such emotions through the associated memories. Remarkable coincidences, at least the ones that people are most likely to recall and describe, are usually fortuitous. They commonly evoke positive emotions. These including an increased sense of connection with others, including bolstered friendships and feeling on a wavelength with a partner or friend.

The numinous quality of synchronistic experiences only further strengthens the positive emotions evoked. If the person has an extra sense that they live in a benevolent universe as a result, and has a reinforced sense that the world around can provide them with what they need, sometimes most unexpectedly, it is only likely to bolster their optimism and positivity.

What a waste it would be to ignore such a resource.

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N.B. This article is a supplement to the second edition of my book, “The Positive Psychology of Synchronicity: Enhance your mental health with the power of coincidence”, due out in August, 2019.