Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: A faulty expectation that sacrifice pays off

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Do you feel bad when you give, give, give, but get nothing in return? Perhaps the world is unfair to you. Or perhaps it is because of a thinking error called “Heaven’s Reward Fallacy”. It’s also why we call out to the universe saying something on the lines of, “I’ve been good, please shower me with goodness.” and “I’ve done this, now I deserve a reward.”

“I’ve done everything right. I studied. I worked sincerely. I avoided alcohol. I didn’t smoke. I woke up early. I exercised. I stayed faithful to my partner. I practiced my skills to ace an interview. So why don’t I have a good career and a faithful partner???” Thoughts like these are common and describe the heaven’s reward fallacy – the belief that all hard work, self-denial, and sacrifice will ultimately pay off and all of that will be worth it.

In a more spiritual sense, this reasoning is the basis of karma – you get what you give to the world; if you do bad, the universe will find a way to make you pay for it; if you help others, the universe will shower you with help when you need it.

What is the Heaven’s Reward Fallacy?

The Heaven’s Reward Fallacy is the irrational expectation that you MUST be rewarded for all your hard work and sacrifice. This fallacy (thinking mistake) leads to disappointment when the rewards don’t come. The disappointment or violation of expectations can lead to anger, frustration, and general bitterness. In most cases, it’s best to not have this fallacy.

Aaron Beck, a pioneering psychologist who worked on Cognitive Distortions, described the Heaven’s Reward Fallacy[1] as, “expecting all sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score, and feeling disappointed and even bitter when the reward does not come.”

Cognitive distortions are rigid and flawed patterns of thinking based on a biased perception of events and others’ behavior. For example, there is a common cognitive distortion called “emotional reasoning” that describes how people sometimes make conclusions based on mere feelings – If I feel stupid, I must be stupid. These distortions, including the heaven’s reward fallacy, often make it difficult to think rationally. Having them also worsens mental health via anxiety and depression. And sometimes, they play a strong role in schizophrenia and OCD – both these disorders involve extreme rigid and inaccurate thinking.

The main problem in using the Heaven’s Reward Fallacy is that it can make a person entitled to anticipated expectations. That entitlement may lead to negative feelings about the world.

What it means

The irrational belief that all your sacrifices will somehow be rewarded by the universe may seem like a comforting thought. It can promise hope about positive consequences. Some proverbs explain this fallacy too – “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet” and “Success is dependent on effort.”

In reality, not all effort or hard work gets rewarded. Not all sacrifices will entitle you to a reward. And not all sacrifices will get redeemed by the universe. This is a comforting thought but can lead to disappointment and judgments like “life is too unfair.”

Believing “success is dependent on effort” is quite a reasonable belief in most cases. But an exaggerated version of that – your hard work will make you succeed no matter what – is the Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.

Religious beliefs often tap into this fallacy – leading a good life will send a person to heaven or doing a major sacrifice in life will earn god’s love, for example.

Examples of the heaven’s reward fallacy

  • Denying yourself pleasurable activities like watching shows to earn great grades. Abstaining from something you love like watching a lot of Netflix will not guarantee a good career or improved grades.
  • Expecting that your effort into a relationship is always returned. Making sacrifices for a relationship won’t make your partner shower you with rewards. Even though this isn’t necessarily bad, a partner may not have the capacity to meet an irrational expectation of rewards. People’s capacity to give is limited in unique ways.
  • Denying yourself pleasure for future happiness. Research suggests otherwise – having moments of instant gratification and truly enjoying pleasurable things is a real source of happiness.
  • Giving up Food, Sex, Netflix, etc., will entitle you to a great career. Someone may be around who watched more shows, went on food tourism, and makes more money in a satisfying job. Luck plays a bigger role in people’s success than they realize.
  • Being a law-abiding model citizen will guarantee a life full of prosperity. Thinking that following the rules 100% gaurantees social benefits is a fallacy because quality of life, social benefits, and social connections depend on many factors that are beyond one’s control.

Takeaway: The universe doesn’t keep score of your sacrifices and hard work. So it’s best not to have unrealistic expectations from things you do for yourself and others. Bad things happen to good people who do the right thing because the universe doesn’t need a concept of fairness, so you shouldn’t expect all “good effort” or “good behavior” gets rewarded adequately.

Effects of using the heaven’s reward fallacy

  • You get angry and frustrated when the hard work or sacrifice doesn’t pay off.
  • You feel you are giving it your all so the universe should give something back to you.
  • You conclude that effort is meaningless and you give up on doing something good.
  • You wonder why bad things happen to good people.

How to overcome it

  • Keep realistic expectations about your hard work.
  • Consider how uncontrollable circumstances can nullify the potential consequence of one’s actions.
  • Assume luck will play a role in your health and happiness.
  • Accept that life will not be fair. Don’t expect KARMA to do the job.
  • Don’t be 100% goal-oriented. Be more process-oriented. This way you can do things for the joy of doing them, not for anticipated rewards.

A deeper look at the heaven’s reward fallacy

It’s not always a fallacy

Is it really a mistake to think that effort will bring rewards? No. In most cases, reasonable effort does translate into reasonable growth – while learning any skill, for example. Heaven’s reward fallacy applies to extreme situations or personally held beliefs. Doing pushups 4 times a week will probably improve muscle mass in the areas that pushups activate. That isn’t a fallacy. Thinking sacrificing the occasional cake will lead to a lean body is a fallacy.

Luck affects rewards in daily life

Luck plays a role – in fact, studies suggest[2] that people severely underestimate the role of luck in their success. In one such study, researchers saw highly successful simulated people emerge in a population just through chance interactions between simulated people. People even attribute their success to effort when luck or others could’ve influenced the success. This often happens while networking and meeting important people who eventually offer a job. One might assume that their degree paid off with a good job because they worked hard for it, but chances are that a lucky acquaintance helped to network with the right person at the right time that led to a job offer.

Anger and dissatisfaction are a consequence of the fallacy

Giving up bad habits (a sacrifice) may make people think the world should reward them. Usually, the rewards come later. If the reward doesn’t come, it triggers anger. A nuanced mechanism here is that people themselves may feel like they deserve compensation for their effort/sacrifice and not getting the reward may be interpreted as being treated unfairly. Anger, which has evolved to demand better treatment from others, becomes the immediate response if there is no compensation.

Time affects how we think about rewards

One mechanism at play here is called “temporal discounting.” It describes a tendency to devalue future rewards[3] as the time to receive the rewards increases, even if they are higher in value than current or immediate rewards. For example, between waiting 10 minutes for $1000/- or 6 months for $10,000 dollars, people are likely to choose $1000 dollars. Some may wait a week for $5000, but as the time to receive the reward increases, the value is discounted in the mind. Research shows that people generally prefer more immediate rewards than future rewards. Far future rewards are devalued and people may even dismiss their existence. This phenomenon has a strong role in how the heaven’s reward fallacy affects everyday life.

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When people make sacrifices, they expect grand rewards – that’s the fallacy. But when those rewards are likely to come in the future, people might devalue them and ignore their original worth. The grand rewards feel dull and unimpressive. For example, the impact of eating healthy and exercising can be long-lasting but immediate rewards are few. For some, it might even be a lot of pain and discomfort. Similarly, with quitting smoking, the many rewards/benefits are set in the future – months and years later. The immediate effect of quitting cigarette smoking is usually withdrawal and discomfort. People may believe that this sacrifice – exercising or quitting smoking – doesn’t get rewarded immediately. While the positive effects emerge (aka the rewards), they are delayed, so they are discounted or trivialized.

Two related concepts play a role alongside temporal discounting too – delay of gratification & delay discounting[4].

It’s hard to resist immediate rewards

Delay of gratification describes people’s ability to resist immediate rewards and postpone rewards. A common example is to hold off doing something you love (dating) for a while to earn a bonus reward (spiritual satisfaction) – essentially a sacrifice. Experiments show that children find it harder to hold off rewards than adults. And people generally find it difficult to make a sacrifice today for a reward tomorrow. For example, many people would be happier to get one chocolate right now than 2 chocolates tomorrow.

The heaven’s reward fallacy can become powerful when a person succeeds at making the delay of gratification “sacrifice.” The person then feels “I succesfully avoided instant gratification, now I must get something of value.”

Waiting for a payoff can lower the payoff’s worth

Delay discounting is giving less value to a specific reward if it is delayed. For example, people will like/choose a bonus of $1000 today more than the same $1000 after a month of waiting. So self-denial like postponing something fun that would make one happy would eventually lower the value of that fun thing and induce a feeling that self-denial was not worth it. The heaven’s reward fallacy here would create a high expectation of a reward but delay discounting would lead to dissatisfaction with that reward.

The combination of all 3 – temporal discounting, delay of gratification, and delay discounting – fuel the heaven’s reward fallacy because all 3 describe how future rewards are either dismissed, devalued, or hard to wait for. In anticipation of a good reward, one may feel their expectation is not met because the good reward has lost its value through time.


The heaven’s reward fallacy is a tendency to expect fairness or compensation for all effort or sacrifice. This tendency can create anger because the world isn’t necessarily fair or keeping score. Being realistic and flexible about expectations and future rewards will help and make the effort more worth it. Being a cognitive distortion, the heaven’s reward fallacy can induce negative feelings that maintain anxiety and depression.

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