We believe that life has to be fair. We believe that "good" people deserve good things and that "bad" people should be punished. We believe that if we do good works, the universe has an obligation to return them to us. We believe that there is a certain universal justice that gives everyone what they deserve.
Without a doubt, life would be infinitely better if things were right. It would be great if we could always get what we work for or if the universe somehow rewarded our good deeds. Unfortunately, life isn't fair. And the sooner we hire it, the better.
When the sense of justice turns into magical thinking
Magical thinking is characteristic of young children, but even adults are not immune to this way of thinking. Magical thinking occurs when we make illogical attributions of causality without supporting empirical evidence, such as when we believe that our ideas or expectations may have direct consequences in the external world.
Our belief that the world is fair can easily turn into magical thinking. For example, a study conducted at Fisher College of Business found that when we are repeat customers of a company, we believe we are more likely than others to win an award in that field. This phenomenon, known as "lucky loyalty," is based on the idea that we deserve a reward for our loyalty. It is a magical thought because it does not take statistical probabilities into account.
That same belief is what leads us to invest in karma. In another experiment conducted at the University of Virginia, psychologists found that at a job fair, people who were led to believe that the job search process was out of their control offered to donate more money to a charity unrelated to employers, as opposed to those who were led to believe that finding a job depended on them.
Later, those job seekers who were led to believe their search was out of their control were more optimistic about their job prospects when giving money to charity than those who did not. This means that deep down they believed that the universe would reward their good deed. Of course, being optimistic is not a bad thing, but sitting around waiting for the world to reward us is no guarantee of good results.
Thinking that life has to be fair is comforting, but it also has a dark side
We all have a deep sense of justice that can be harmed in many ways. While it's important to strive to create a fairer and more equitable environment in life, there are times when that sensitivity doesn't help much in the long run. So sometimes it's valuable to maintain our sense of justice, but other times we need to be mature enough to give up the belief that life has to be fair.
The belief that the world should be a fair and just place gives us confidence and security. It maintains our psychological balance. Indeed, among survivors of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which nearly 90.000 people died, those who lost family and friends were more likely to believe that life is unfair. However, those who continued to believe the world was fair suffered less anxiety and depression, as a study conducted at Peking University showed.
But believing that life is fair also has a dark side. Albert Ellis, for example, was convinced that there are three monsters that prevent us from moving forward: "I have to do it well, you have to treat me well and the world must be easy". This psychologist was convinced that the belief that life should be fair actually becomes an obstacle that generates unhappiness.
Indeed, this belief can even lead us to be more numb, biased and unfair. A study conducted at Purdue University revealed that people who believe in universal justice are less likely to hire a candidate who has been fired. This is because they think there must be a reason, that that candidate was somehow punished for his bad behavior or inefficiency. Of course, that's not always the case.
Unrealistic expectations condemn us to frustration
When we believe that others should behave kindly or that we should not encounter obstacles in our path, we are actually feeding unrealistic expectations. Sooner or later, reality will make us understand that this is not the case, that things don't work that way and that sometimes life is unfair.
Then we will get frustrated. As children we will feel confused, hurt and disoriented, wondering what happened. We fail to make sense of a chaotic world without apparent justice and order in which bad things happen to good people and vice versa.
At that point we can become extremely disappointed, sad or angry. But the truth is, these feelings are useless to rectify an unfair situation. Quite the opposite. It is likely that on more than one occasion those emotions have made the situation worse, because they cloud our rational mind and prevent us from finding assertive strategies to deal with what is happening.
In fact, there are people who can carry on that pain, disappointment and anger for years, and that will end up embittering them. These people cling to their wounds and their wrongs, becoming victims of the injustices of life. They go around complaining: "life is unfair to me!" In these cases, of course, the sense of justice does not help. Rather, it becomes a source of distress.
Accept that life is unfair and move on
Albert Ellis observed that “even injustice has positive aspects. It challenges us to be as happy as possible in an unjust world “. Being happy, feeling fulfilled and complete when the world is good and rewards us is easy. The real merit lies in developing the psychological tools that allow us to maintain inner peace in the midst of the storm, when the world is extremely unfair.
When bad things happen to us, we can spend all our energy complaining about how unfair life is, or we can accept this obvious and move on. If the universe has not taken into account our good deeds, we cannot help but accept it.
Ellis explains that “reality is not so much what happens to us, but rather what we think of the events that create the reality we experience. This means that each of us creates the reality in which we live ”. We have tremendous power to build thoughts, feelings and actions that can help us live in a more balanced way or, conversely, lead to self-destructive behaviors.
Accepting that life is not fair does not mean allowing everyone to step on us or violate our rights. We also need to be able to set boundaries by following our sense of justice. We just have to be careful that that sense of justice doesn't become a double-edged sword, because we can easily lose perspective and fight a battle that's lost early or poison ourselves with the bitterness of resentment.
The idea of justice is seductive, but we must be pragmatic. We will find it easier to assertively address a problem when we accept the "apparent" inequity in life. We can believe that the courts were created to protect us and to dispense justice. All right. But we must also be aware that the judicial system can sometimes be unfair.
Sometimes we just have to give up the desire to make sense of everything, find an order behind the chaos that explains what we refuse to accept: that bad things happen to "good" people and good things happen to "bad" people.
In short, we must understand that stubbornly insisting that life is unfair to us will inevitably intensify our pain and anger and hinder us, preventing us from moving forward.