Life Is Not About Rewards and Punishments, But There Are Consequences

Life is a succession of consequences. That's why, it is worth thinking reflectively about each act.
Life Is Not About Rewards and Punishments, But There Are Consequences
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 11 July, 2024

John Green said in his young adult book, Looking for Alaska, that we need to be much more aware of the chain of consequences that come from even our smallest actions. That said, acknowledging this isn’t exactly easy.

A lot of us have been raised under a firm behaviorist structure, where all you have to do is press the red button and avoid the blue one and things will go well, for life to give us something back in return.

But our lives don’t really care about red and blue buttons. Life doesn’t reward or punish us. What we do have are hints, ever-so-thin threads where all it takes is a breath for things to vibrate, change, and impact reality.

Taking responsibility for our every word and silence, non-action and action, every thought is how we will get control over our lives. Adopting that perspective as soon as possible will help you reach your goals and have much better, more meaningful relationships.

A dandelion representing the consequences in life.

Interpreting signs and evaluating consequences

Terrence Deacon is a well-known neuro-anthropologist who’s currently a part of the cognitive science department at the University of California, Berkeley. One of his most interesting books is “The Symbolic Species.”

In it, he reminds us of the untapped power we all have that we’re not putting enough time or energy into. We’re talking about our ability to calmly analyze the causes of things that happen and to predict the possible consequences.

Professor Deacon tells us that our daily lives aren’t made up of stimuli we react to, as behaviorists would say. After all, we don’t always get a reward or a punishment based on what we do or don’t do.

Signs in life

All around you are “signs” you have to know how to interpret in order to come up with an appropriate response. To do that, we need willpower and wisdom. That’s what we need to give a logical, accurate meaning to the symbols surrounding us.

For example, if you get to work and see a coworker crying at his desk, no one would ever think to go looking for the boss to tell her one of her employees “won’t be very productive today.” No, we’ll wonder what the cause of their emotional state might be. And then we’ll think about how we can approach them and help them.

Professor Deacon also reminds us that we have to be wise investigators. To start, we should assume that we make mistakes. Sometimes we hit the mark with our responses and actions. On the other hand, sometimes we mess up and won’t have any option but to take the consequences.

Because sometimes life is like trying to play a piece of music with rubber kitchen gloves on. You want to press a specific key on your piano for it to ring out with that perfect sound, but you accidentally press more keys at the same time.

The sound that comes out is a bit clumsy and off-tune. But little by little, with daily practice, we turn into skillful musicians able to produce the melody we have in our minds. In the end, we’ll find the right keys.

Learn to shape your reality

Thinking everything we do and think has a whole series of consequences might scare you at first. But instead of seeing it like a classic “cause and effect” relationship, look at it through a much wider, richer lens.

You have to understand that our existence is a wonderful game of exploration and creation. You also have to understand that in this game you have to know the rules and guidelines determining everything that happens. 

The rules are easy to learn and we’ll tell you what they are now. Take a minute and think about them…

  • You can make your life better. You have to be clear on what you want to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it. 
  • Understand that there are things, incidents, and people that we can’t change. We have to accept them just as they are.
  • Learn from your mistakes, failures, and losses.
  • Be receptive to everything around you: be proactive, creative, and brave.
  • Be respectful. See your life as a delicate fabric where everything you do and say has an impact.

Last but not least, understand that life has no specific, pre-determined design for you. It’s you and your willpower that shape your destiny. You can be the architect of a fuller, more beautiful future.

A beautiful life.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.