Does Everything Happen For A Reason?

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Does everything happen for a reason? No. Not in the way that you’re probably thinking.

But this platitude is one you often hear when it comes to the uglier parts of life. A person dies? Well, it must all be part of God’s plan. A terrible thing happens? Everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t know that reason right now. A traumatic experience occurs? What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger! Right? Right…?

Why do people believe that everything happens for a reason?

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias plays a large role in reinforcing belief. People experiencing confirmation bias tend to find a way to interpret new evidence as confirming their theories and beliefs. Sometimes this is an active choice; sometimes, it’s not.

Some people aren’t interested in or value anything other than the “truth” they believe in. That doesn’t mean that these people have bad intentions. Instead, they may be unable to think outside of the scope of their perception of the truth and the bigger reality. If that were a common skill, many philosophers would be out of a job, not that philosophers are killing it out there.

How does confirmation bias relate to the idea that everything happens for a reason? Let’s look at an example.

Greg gets in a car accident and loses a leg. Instead of spiraling into a deep depression and staying there, Greg focuses on getting back out there, getting active, and living an active life. He decides to take up running with his new prosthetic because he doesn’t want to let his accident hold him back. Greg is quite successful in that endeavor. After training hard, he decides to start running in different races. First, a half-marathon, then a full marathon, both of which he finishes and places well.

And then you have the other people on the outside looking in on Greg’s situation. They may or may not have seen the initial reaction to the accident; the tragedy, the depression, the mourning. They may have only seen Greg rising up and overcoming the hand that life dealt to him. So they don’t necessarily spend much time looking at all the negative parts of Greg’s accident and experience.

Instead, they focus on recovery and his new life as a runner. But, then, they take that as confirmation that “Yes, everything does happen for a reason. Greg lost his leg, but look at how good he is doing now!”

And that’s a pretty easy thing to do with how people and society tend to function. People want hope and inspiration, so they look at the Gregs of the world. They don’t look at the people who found themselves in a similar situation but couldn’t or wouldn’t find a different path.

Not everyone will have Greg’s drive, ability, or even suffer the same injuries that still gave Greg the freedom to recover that way. The stories of other people like Greg won’t have such a positive ending. They can’t get over the unfairness of it all, sink into their trauma, and don’t try because they don’t see any reason to try.

Then, people experiencing confirmation bias point at others who may be in similar situations to tell them that they aren’t trying hard enough. This is even a theme you see in movies from time to time. “What? Are you just going to let something as minor as a traumatizing car crash, losing a leg, and having your life turned upside down stop you from living your best life? Greg did it. Why can’t you?”

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias may play a role in believing that everything happens for a reason. This type of bias is also called the “knew-it-all-along” effect. That is, the person looks back on an experience and confirms to themselves that they knew this was going to happen! Again, this is because the evidence was there all along.

Let’s go back to the Greg example.

That car accident may have served a pivotal role in Greg’s life. Maybe he was living a stagnant existence before, and the accident is what caused him to pursue a more active life. Greg looks back on his old life, which may not have been that good, the car accident, which definitely wasn’t good, and his current life, which may be much better (even without a leg), and decides, “Yes. Everything happens for a reason. This was a good thing that happened to me even though it was bad.”

Greg believes that because it is true for him. He looks back on his life and sees its trajectory until the car crash, the tragedy of losing his leg, and how he recovered to reach his conclusion. Unfortunately, he may be so wrapped up in his own story that he loses sight of all the people who couldn’t do what he did.

The problem is that hindsight bias relies on a distorted interpretation of the facts. Typically, people want to make easy sense of the uglier, difficult parts of life. It’s easy for Greg to reflect on his life and be satisfied with where he’s now if things are going well for him. But what if they weren’t? Would he feel so good and right about it? Probably not.

And the same thing is true for other terrible things.

A woman is sexually assaulted? “Well, she shouldn’t have been dressed like that. She shouldn’t have been out by herself. She should have paid closer attention to who she was around. Of course she’d get sexually assaulted because she didn’t follow all of these arbitrary rules to stay safe!” Then they conveniently ignore all the people who follow the rules like that and still end up targeted.

“Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is you didn’t try hard enough to not be sexually assaulted.”

An addict overdoses and dies? “Of course he did. It was inevitable. Did you see how unstable and erratic he was? Did you not know how traumatized and difficult he was? What other outcome could there have been?” Again, conveniently ignoring all the people who make great strides in improving their mental health or create recovery.

“Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is you were too weak to overcome your addiction until it killed you.”

The Paradox

You may have noticed a distinct contradiction in these perspectives and biases if you’ve been paying close attention. On the one hand, many people need to convince themselves that everything happens for a reason so that they can make sense of the world.

In confirmation bias, they look for those examples and subconsciously select the circumstances that back their point of view. Then, whenever another example pops up, they can point at it and say, “See! What I believe is correct!”

In hindsight bias, they may not be able to find recent examples to confirm with, so they look back through and subconsciously cherry-pick the facts and circumstances that support their belief. They then take those cherry-picked circumstances and use them to say, “Yep. I knew that was going to happen all along.”

Confirmation bias cherry-picks from the present. Hindsight bias cherry-picks from the past. Both are used by people to accomplish the same goal of reinforcing the idea that “everything happens for a reason.”

Does everything happen for a reason?

Yes. Everything does happen for a reason. And that reason is “that’s life.” Terrible things happen to innocent people every day for no reason at all. People get murdered over nothing, sexually assaulted, lose careers, become disabled, experience severe medical problems, have their lives turned inside out, complete suicide, overdose, and all other terrible things because that’s how life is sometimes.

You can do everything right and still get blindsided by something you never saw coming. But, on the other hand, you can learn every tip and trick, follow every rule, and feel like you’re totally prepared for whatever terrible thing is coming; then find out you weren’t prepared at all if that terrible thing should arrive.

But why do people believe that everything happens for a reason, then? Why do people say it?

I don’t know if there is a single concrete answer to that question. Some people seem to do it because it’s the only way they can make sense of the world.

“Surely, everything has some order to it that we can influence and control. Surely, it’s not all up to pure chance that I won’t experience some terrible trauma or tragedy. But I have control over myself and my own destiny. It won’t happen to me because I do all these things that should prevent it.”

But, unfortunately, we don’t have control over the circumstances life throws at us.

Other people genuinely believe it. They think that all or most things that happen, good or bad, wonderful or tragic, are somehow tied to fate, destiny, or God’s plan. It doesn’t matter if it’s winning the lottery or having a child die. It’s all part of God’s plan for you, even if it traumatizes you mentally or physically.

But, personally, I don’t think it’s any of those things. Speaking as someone that’s spent a lot of time with people going through terrible things, I think people aren’t anywhere as emotionally intelligent as they want to believe they are. They say things like “everything happens for a reason” because…they don’t know what else to say.

What do you say to a parent whose child has died?

What do you say to the spouse of someone who completed suicide?

What do you say to a sexual assault survivor?

In my opinion, when the average, untrained person is confronted with these circumstances, they say common platitudes because they don’t know any better. They’ve never experienced this situation before, so they don’t know how to handle it themselves.

They feel compelled to say something, usually a statement they’ve heard regularly, like “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” That’s why professionals are trained on how to support, communicate with, and help people who experience terrible things.

The question is, “What do you say, then?” Quite often, the best thing you can say is nothing about the situation. No words you speak will console someone who’s been through something terrible and tragic. The best thing you can do is be present, supportive, listen, and encourage that person toward professionals who can help them.

You don’t have to have all of the answers, even if you feel compelled to speak or have them. Anyone that expects you to is not being reasonable.

Does everything happen for a reason?

Yes. The reason is that life does terrible things to innocent people for no reason. No one is above tragedy. We all experience it sooner or later.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.