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It’s important to focus on the ‘here and now’

June 15th, 2024 10:00 PM


It’s important to focus on the ‘here and now’ Image
Hard work is valued in the workplaces, but many other factors – timing, networking, workplace dynamics, luck – influence career success. It’s easy to become bitter and resentful. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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DO you assume your hard work and sacrifice must be rewarded? Do you get frustrated when life doesn’t unfold according to your expectations?

If so, you may be prone to a cognitive distortion, or thinking error, known as the heaven’s reward fallacy. The father of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), the late Dr Aaron Beck, described the heaven’s reward fallacy as the expectation that all sacrifice and self-denial must pay off, ‘as if there were someone keeping score, and feeling disappointed and even bitter when the reward does not come’. It is an expectation that you must be rewarded for your sacrifice and hard work, that virtuous behaviour must inevitably be rewarded with positive outcomes.

The fallacy is named after the concept of heavenly rewards, where people might believe that by being sacrificing and morally upright, they will be rewarded with a blissful afterlife or some other form of divine recompense. However, whatever about the afterlife, life on earth is complex; outcomes are influenced by a multitude of factors, and good actions are not always rewarded with positive rewards.

Here are some everyday examples. Mike thinks, ‘I eat well, go to the gym four times a week and lead a healthy lifestyle, so I won’t get sick.’

In reality, while a healthy lifestyle is good for overall well-being, it doesn’t guarantee immunity from illness. Various factors – genes, environmental conditions, chance – influence health outcomes.

Or this: Monica is in an unhappy relationship but continues to make sacrifices for her partner and go out of her way to make him happy, thinking her efforts will eventually be rewarded and he will finally return her love and devotion.

In reality, while maintaining a strong relationship requires effort, that doesn’t mean one’s efforts must be rewarded. Some people are just wrong for each other, and all the sacrifices in the world won’t change that hard reality.

Or this: Jack is a hard worker and an ethical worker. He has been passed over for promotion but believes he will inevitably climb the corporate ladder in time.

In reality, while hard work and ethical behaviour are generally valued in workplaces, many other factors – timing, networking, workplace dynamics, luck – influence career success.

The point is, while virtuous actions are generally encouraged and contribute positively to various aspects of life, it’s a mistake to assume a direct, guaranteed connection between virtue and specific outcomes.


While the idea that the universe will reward all your sacrifices may appear at first glance to be a reassuring one, the reality is different. Assuming your sacrifices will be rewarded can lead to disappointment and disillusionment when life doesn’t unfold the way you thought it would.

It’s easy to become bitter and resentful, to be left with a sense of injustice, to stew on the apparent unfairness of it all. In time you may even end up thinking: ‘Why bother making the effort to do good? There’s no point.’

Believing in a direct connection between virtue and reward can also result in a lack of empathy for others who may be struggling. The heaven’s reward fallacy is closely linked to the so-called just world fallacy – the idea we live in a fair and orderly world where good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished.

This can result in implicit victim-blaming, whether theft (‘I told them to get a burglar alarm’), ill health (‘He could have looked after himself better’), and so on. Indeed, people often blame themselves when they have suffered through no fault of their own.

How can you overcome the heaven’s reward fallacy? Aim to be more realistic in your expectations. Acknowledge that life is complex and messy and uncertain, and influenced by many factors beyond your control.

Embrace the reality that life can be unfair. Don’t rest your hopes on karma – accept that good deeds can go unrewarded and the bad guys don’t always ‘get what’s coming to them’.

In a nutshell, don’t assume today’s sacrifices will be rewarded in the future. Don’t routinely put others’ needs before your own. Try to focus more on the here-and-now, rather than some imagined future.

Linda Hamilton is a Kinsale-based cognitive behavioural therapist. If you would like to get in touch with her, call 086-3300807

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