Whether happy, sad or somewhere in between, religious and nonreligious people alike tend to believe life events "happen for a reason," according to a recent study on the old adage.
By analyzing the results of three separate experiments, researchers Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom, both of the Yale Mind and Development Lab, determined that religious faith isn't required to credit a supernatural force with controlling earthly events. The idea of fate was supported by a majority of both religious respondents and atheists in the experiments, confirming the researchers' sense that the saying captures a universal aspect of human life.
"Adages such as 'it was meant to be' and 'everything happens for a reason' are expressions of the way people naturally view the world — as imbued with agency, intention and reason," their study, "Why did this happen to me? Religious believers' and non-believers' teleological reasoning about life events," published in the journal "Cognition" (paywall), concluded.
In other words, people like to think there is rhyme and reason in their daily lives, even if they don't credit God or some other higher power with putting it there.
Although the study referenced other articles that similarly reported widespread belief in fate, it focused on exploring the interplay between this desire for reason and religious belief. Researchers determined that many nonbelievers not only believe everything happens for a reason; they also credit fate with kind or instructive intentions, using the same kind of language believers used to describe God.
Matthew Hutson, a freelance writer and author of "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane," noted that there are many benefits to this kind of fate-based reasoning, including that it helps people cope in the aftermath of a tragic event.
"If you're looking for the silver lining, you're more likely to find it," he said.
Findings about fate
Banerjee and Bloom's study explored how the belief that everything happens for a reason interacts with life events, including natural disasters like floods or hurricanes, as well as personal tragedies such as the death of a loved one.
In one of the experiments, each of the 100 participants was asked to indicate how strongly he or she believed in fate, defined as the following: "Many people believe that significant life events are meant to be and that they happen for a reason. They believe that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out."
Researchers compared responses to reported religious affiliations, determining that while believers are more likely to find lessons in life events, a majority of both groups believe in fate.
"Among God-believers, 84.8 percent reported some degree of belief in fate, 13.0 percent reported they were neutral and 2.2 percent denied belief in fate," the article reported. "Among God-non-believers, a smaller majority, 54.3 percent, also reported some degree of belief in fate, while 5.7 percent were neutral and 40.0 percent denied belief in fate."
Participants were then asked to characterize fate, describing what intentions, if any, it has.
Many believers saw fate as fair (62.1 percent), kind (54 percent), and instructive (72.9 percent), a finding that researchers attributed to religious teachings about God's benevolence. But "even many non-religious people (between 33 percent and 53 percent), most of whom claimed that fate is just a fact in the universe, nonetheless personified fate as a type of goal-directed intentional force," the article reported.
Another experiment further investigated how the belief that everything happens for a reason affects people's responses to personal tragedies. Participants were asked to write about the most significant event in their lives in the past five years and to then describe why they thought it had occurred.
As expected, many respondents believed fate played a role in the event, including 53.1 percent of believers and 24 percent of nonbelievers. And researchers were surprised that the people who referenced fate also engaged in "benefit-finding," whether or not the event itself was positive.
"In other words, they identified positive downstream consequences of the event, even when the initial event itself was highly negative," they reported.
Although belief in fate is compelling for many people, it is sometimes problematic, noted Eddie Reece, a psychotherapist who has operated a private counseling practice in Georgia since 1992.
"Most of the time folks, including my clients, say everything happens for a reason a bit offhandedly. With clients, I always stop them and ask them to explore what they mean by that," he said.
It's not that he's trying to talk people out of belief in God or mock a natural tendency to find meaning in difficult situations, Reece said. He just wants to ensure that people are working through their feelings, instead of too quickly pinning a crisis on fate or bad luck.
"In my opinion, (the belief that everything happens for a reason) is almost always used to some degree — even if you totally believe it — to not feel your feelings," he said. "And then you're never really going to move on and get past whatever the hurt was."
Banerjee and Bloom also offered cautions about believing in fate, calling in an op-ed for The New York Times for people to remain committed to confronting injustices in spite of perceived supernatural influences.
"The events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen," they wrote.
But belief in fate also plays a positive role in many people's ability to deal with tragic circumstances, said Rachel Hercman, a psychotherapist in New York City.
"The idea that everything happens for a reason is a comfort. People might otherwise feel lost or aimless. They may not be at peace with what happened to them," she said. Through the idea that everything happens for a reason, "some find that it enables them to move on and wake up with a sense of purpose" and, in some cases, find a way to make even a difficult situation meaningful.
Whether or not the existence of fate can be proven, people will continue to bring fate-based thinking to bear on their lives, Hutson said, relating it to his own habit of regularly knocking on wood to avoid jinxes.
"Our default is to read meaning into things and to make connections," he said. "In a sense, it's irrational," but it has deep meaning for many people, religious and irreligious alike.
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kelsey_dallas
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