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Meaning, Purpose, and Pain
On the use of teleological explanations to make sense of suffering
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“Our bodies might suffer maladies, we might suffer pain, our zest for life might be lost, our relationships shattered, our projects failures, our suffering real, and yet we can think of it as for the ultimate good.”
~ Stan Van Hooft, 1998
“Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”
~ Viktor Frankl, 1946
Can suffering be beneficial? If you believe that the answer is a resounding “no”, then you are in good company. Suffering underlies the very worst moments in our lives; moments we spend considerable effort trying to forget. If your answer is a hesitant, albeit judicious “yes”, then you might have been the victim of such an experience, but you view it as one of the most meaningful and pivotal moments of your life.
There are many ways in which we find meaning in suffering. We might search for silver linings, turn bad into good through altruism, or claim that everything happens for a reason and is part of a greater plan. Stan van Hooft explains this idea in his 1998 essay, The Meanings of Suffering:
“Given the ineliminability of suffering from our lives … a central project of human thought is to make it bearable or acceptable, and one of the most common ways of doing this is to show it to be good in some way. If suffering were seen as a positive event or force in our lives, we would be better able to endure it.”
This sentiment does not originate with van Hooft. The problem of suffering has been pondered for millennia. Aristotle (4th century BCE) claimed that it was essential for the development of virtue. The Buddha (5th century BCE) taught that suffering could be overcome in his Four Noble Truths. Heraclitus (same period) viewed suffering as an essential part of human life and necessary for a person’s growth and development.
Despite the accumulated work from the greatest thinkers in human history, most of us can’t shake the deep-seated intuition that suffering is something that should not happen. It is an aberration of how things should be, and thus demands explanation. Take traumatic events, which challenge our default view that life is fair, stable, and predictable. In response, we incorporate these events into our global meaning framework, sometimes by finding meaning in the event itself.
One study examined the personal disaster stories of Hurricane Katrina survivors. They discovered that viewing the hurricane as an “act of God” (35%) was just as common as viewing it as an “act of nature” (36%). Additionally, they found that those who experienced the most hardship were the most likely to understand their experience as an act of God.
In general, religion comes in handy when we need to make sense of something that is otherwise inexplicable. Senseless tragedies can be seen as a test of our faith, a punishment from the gods, or a necessary cost for future prosperity. Through resolving uncertainty and providing closure, using religious explanations of daily occurrences has been shown to enhance well-being. It might come as no surprise that the positive correlation between religion and happiness is one of the more robust findings in the literature.
Absent religious meaning, many of us still look for the underlying purpose behind suffering and claim that it occurred for the greater good. If you are desperate to avoid invoking God, you might say that “the universe has a plan” instead. This style of thinking is called teleological reasoning, and it happens when we explain phenomena by appealing to their underlying purpose, rather than their material cause.
Teleology can creep into our language through common cliches. I once embarrassed myself in front of an academic whom I admired and was nervous to meet. In an attempt to impress her with my knowledge, I waffled on for minutes trying to string together at least one coherent thought about our common interests. All I could muster was a word salad. Dejected, I walked out of her office reassuring myself that the partnership “wasn’t meant to be.”
Teleological reasoning appears long before we learn to incorporate cliches into our vocabulary. Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom (2015) gave kids and adults teleological and nonteleological explanations for a range of life events and asked them to choose which explanation was most helpful for understanding the event’s cause. The younger the participant, the more likely they were to find the teleological explanations compelling.
Why do we do this? After all, it doesn’t change what happened to us, nor does it help us solve any of the problems that come with significant life events. But it can change how we think about situations that are out of our control. It can be very difficult to admit when you are powerless. The allure of thinking in terms of superstition is that it gives us the sense that we can somehow influence the course of random events. We knock on wood to avoid the undesirable and blow out birthday candles to bring about the wishful.
Teleological explanations are convincing because they appeal to humans’ intuitive understanding of intentions and actions. Research has shown that the more likely you are to consider others’ intentions, whether it be through paranoia or empathy, the more likely you are to find intention and purpose within your own life. We are agency detectors. Other research has shown that we are more likely to invoke God when explaining events that otherwise lack an agent.
The latter study provided participants with a vignette about a family that is picnicking in a valley before the water level begins to rise due to a nearby broken dam. In one condition, the water only ruins their lunch; in the other, it drowns the entire family. They also varied whether the dam failed spontaneously, or was destroyed by a malevolent dam worker. They found that participants were more likely to invoke God when the dam broke spontaneously (i.e, a chance event) than when it was destroyed by the evil dam worker (i.e., caused by an agent).
The participants were also more likely to use supernatural explanations when the outcome was extreme, (i.e., when the family drowned) than when it was simply inconvenient (i.e., when their lunch was ruined). Other examples abound. One study found that prostate cancer survivors become more religious the worse their prognosis. Another showed that parents become more pious when their child is diagnosed with cancer.
In other words, God thrives not in times of plenty, but in times of pain. When the source of our suffering seems extraordinary, inexplicable, and undeserved, we can’t help but feel that someone or something is behind it. God is an easy target to blame for such incidents, but he can also serve to bring order to chaos and supernatural meaning to senseless tragedy.
There are three foundational components to meaning in life: coherence, purpose, and significance. Life is coherent when we can make sense of it; purposeful when there is a reason to be living it; and significant when our sense of importance transcends the trivial or momentary.
Our need for coherence might have co-evolved with our pattern-recognition abilities. It is what allows us to establish predictability onto the world in a way that confers a survival advantage on humans. Our explanations aren’t always true, but at least we’re always looking for them.
Our need for purpose anchors our future goals in mind and thus can guide our actions in the present. Our goals can range from getting an early start to our day (a constant struggle of mine) to our considerations for the future of humanity (e.g., climate change advocacy). As far as we know, humans are the only animal with the capacity to consider the far future and act accordingly.
Our knack for finding coherence and purpose helps us to perceive significance in events that felt significant. We don’t comfort a friend whose house just burned into flames by saying, “These things happen”. Besides being quite unhelpful, it assigns a significant event with a mundane cause, namely chance. Instead, our friend will gradually make sense of this tragedy on his own. When circumstances improve, he might even come to appreciate the event as a pivotal moment in his life and claim that it ‘happened for a reason’.
Promiscuous teleology satisfies each of these components. It provides coherence when naturalistic explanations are unsatisfying or unavailable. It provides purpose when it orients us toward our long-term goals. It provides significance by connecting and positioning oneself within the overall plans of the universe or higher power. Thus, teleology can play a pivotal factor in restoring meaning that was otherwise lost during a tragedy. When someone asks, “why did this happen to me” after a natural disaster, they aren’t looking for a meteorology report.
Meaning is found in significant events because it is these events that most urgently demand explanation. Intense emotional experiences are remembered as more meaningful and are thus featured more prominently in the narrative of our lives. One group of researchers asked participants to reflect on significant life events within the last year and asked them to judge how meaningful the experience was. Their results showed that emotionally extreme events, positive or negative, were perceived as the most meaningful. Thus, it is the intense emotional experiences that most define who we are. This might be part of the reason why we aren't always hedonistic, but we also seek out unpleasant experiences such as running marathons, watching horror movies, or caring for children.
The pull towards meaning can also motivate people to become more altruistic. Psychologist Ervin Staub (2003) has coined the term ‘altruism born of suffering’ to describe how this desire to help others occurs not only in spite of suffering but because of it. It is more common for people to help others after being victimized than to exact revenge on the perpetrator, perhaps because 1. revenge is a costly way to gain closure, and 2. once closure has been obtained through revenge, there is no further meaning to be derived from the experience.
In contrast, devoting one’s life to altruism by helping other victims provides an inexhaustible source of purpose, and brings meaning to the experience that is cohesive with the rest of our lives. This terrible thing needed to happen for me to be who I am today. It is central to who I am. I wouldn't change a thing. I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s account of Jerry Long, who became paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident:
"I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn't break me. I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible."
In other words, when we are unable to change the outcome of a life event, we change our attitude towards it instead. I broke my neck, it didn’t break me. Trauma can shatter our assumptions about our world, but they can be repaired. We can scour for a silver lining, invoke God or other mysterious forces in the universe, weave the event into our lives in a way that is in line with our goals, or turn bad into good by helping others. Sometimes naturalistic explanations are not enough. Sometimes circumstances call for unwarranted assumptions about the world. But when scenarios that are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and disruptive come out of the blue and rob us of our sense of certainty, direction, and meaning, sometimes, we are better off being wrong.
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Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2014). Why did this happen to me? Religious believers’ and non-believers’ teleological reasoning about life events. Cognition, 133(1), 277-303.
Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2015). “Everything Happens for a Reason”: Children’s Beliefs About Purpose in Life Events. Child Development, 86(2), 503–518.
Frankl, V. E. (2017). Man's Search for Meaning: Young Adult Edition: Young Adult Edition. Beacon Press.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2000). Extracting meaning from past affective experiences: The importance of peaks, ends, and specific emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 14(4), 577-606.
Gall, T. L. (2004). Relationship with God and the quality of life of prostate cancer survivors. Quality of Life Research, 13, 1357-1368.
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Scott, M. J. (2022). Reasons Things Happen for a Reason: An Integrative Theory of Teleology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(2), 452-464.
Sommer, K. L., Baumeister, R. F., & Stillman, T. F. (2013). e construction of meaning from life events: Empirical studies of personal narratives. In The human quest for meaning (pp. 343-360). Routledge.
Spilka, B., Zwartjes, W. J., & Zwartjes, G. M. (1991). The role of religion in coping with childhood cancer. Pastoral Psychology, 39(5), 295-304.
Staub, E., & Vollhardt, J. (2008). Altruism born of suffering: The roots of caring and helping after victimization and other trauma. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(3), 267-280.
Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., & Hamedani, M. G. (2013). Who explains Hurricane Katrina and the Chilean earthquake as an act of God? The experience of extreme hardship predicts religious meaning-making. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(4), 606-619.
Van Hooft, S. (1998). The meanings of suffering. Hastings Center Report, 28(5), 13-19.
Though luckily I got a second chance and we have stayed connected to this day.