Why bad things happen to good people

Understanding the root causes of the bad things that happen to you decreases suffering

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Consider the set of all the things that happen to you. A lot of them you have no control over. You didn’t choose to be born. Some you have full control over. You chose to read this article. And then there are others you have partial control over. You can be good to someone in hopes that they’ll be good to you. They may be good to you at times but not in all instances.

Knowing this, we can conclude that all kinds of things happen to all kinds of people. It’s not necessary that good things will only happen to good people and bad things to bad people.

The false assumption

When you question why bad things happen to good people, you assume they shouldn’t. That assumption is wrong. It stems from the innate sense of justice that people have. People tend to believe that good things happen to those who are good and that bad things happen to those who are bad. If something bad happens to someone, they deserve it.1Lupfer, M. B., & Gingrich, B. E. (1999). When bad (good) things happen to good (bad) people: The impact of character appraisal and perceived controllability on judgments of deservingness. Social Justice Research12, 165-188.

Of course, nothing can be further from the truth. Bad things happen to people all the time, and they don’t deserve it. They didn’t deliberately bring those negative events upon themselves. Those negative events occurred to them because of the law of cause and effect. For instance, people dying of natural disasters. They were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Their character had nothing to do with anything.

The universe is not your friend

Humans form reciprocal relationships with other humans. Meaning that if you do something good for someone, you expect them to return the favor. But not all that happens to us is caused by other humans. You can’t expect the universe to care about you like you might expect a friend.

If a friend wrongs you, you probably didn’t deserve it. Your negative emotions are justified. But the universe is not your friend. It doesn’t have agency. Some things happen to you simply because you exist in the universe and are floating in its soup of cause and effect.

In my article debunking karma, I gave the example of slipping on a banana peel. The banana, the floor, or the universe doesn’t care about your goodness, personality, or your past deeds. If you step on a slippery thing, you slip. Your goodness cannot overcome the laws of physics. Yet, when something bad like an accident happens to people, many of them are like:

“Why did this happen to me?”
“I don’t deserve this.”

Thinking this way creates unnecessary suffering, and you pretend that you have more control over what happens to you than you really do.

Backward rationalization

When something bad happens to someone, people tend to recall all the bad things that person may have done, ignoring the good things that have done. They want to reinforce their belief in karma.

“Of course, X happened to him. He had it coming. After all, he did A, B, and C before.”

Even though A, B, and C have no logical connection to X. 

Say someone stole a book from the school library (A), lied to a coworker (B), and forged documents (C). They’re now suffering from cancer (X). You don’t need to be a medical student to know that their current situation has no logical connection to the follies of their past.

When something bad happens to a very good person, this type of illogical thinking gets disrupted. There’s hardly any evidence of the person being bad in the past. The resulting cognitive dissonance can get them falsely accused of being bad, or their present suffering might get downplayed.

“Relax! It’s not so bad. You’re a good person. All this is happening for the greater good. You’ll see.”

Contrast effect and salience

When something bad happens to a bad person, it’s expected and normal. People feel satisfied when they hear the news and get over it quickly. But when something bad happens to a good person, it stands out because it shouldn’t happen. Just as you can’t help but notice a dark-colored object in a light background, you can’t help but notice bad things happening to good people.

Also, negative events are more salient compared to positive ones because we’re wired to seek out negative information. Negative information points to problems we must solve to ensure survival and reproduction.2Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than goodReview of general psychology5(4), 323-370.

Focus on the controllable

The way to get out of this mess is to study your problems deeply and get a good understanding of the root causes behind them. Get an accurate idea about your part in causing the problems that you’re facing. Drop the ones you can do nothing about and focus on the ones you can solve. 

Many well-intentioned people say that you must take full responsibility for your life. I find that advice unrealistic and perfectionistic. You can’t take full responsibility for your life because you don’t fully control what happens to you. What you can control is your actions.

You can solve problems only to the extent that your actions contribute to them. Everything beyond that is not your responsibility.

I find this idea quite freeing. I was dealing with a narcissist in my life. I didn’t know they were a narcissist. I only saw them as a difficult person I had to figure out how to deal with. I thought I was more responsible for their behavior than I really was. 

When I learned about their narcissism, I realized I had very little to do with how they behaved. Their behavior was mostly their own problem. I stopped doing the little things I did that were contributing to the problem. I no longer see that person as a problem I must solve. It’s 100% their own responsibility to fix themselves.

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