Picture this: You’re making toast in the morning as per your normal routine, only this time, it burns. Maybe you’re distracted, or you set your toaster on the wrong setting. Whatever the reason, the charred piece of bread is unsalvageable and so, you’re forced to throw it out and make another batch.
The whole process has added five minutes to your morning routine, so although it’s an objectively small inconvenience, you’re now running a bit late leaving the house, and therefore, arriving at work. You’re annoyed. But you jump in your car and head to work. But on the way, you see a car accident, and when you hear the details of the crash, you realise that had you left your house on time, it could have been you. That burnt toast — it might have saved your life.
Here’s another scenario. Another morning — one where you’re running divinely on time — you decide to pick up a takeaway coffee on the way to work, but the barista is battling with a never ending stream of orders, so yours takes a few extra minutes. But as you stand in the café, waiting for your soy flat white, you stand next to someone you normally would’ve missed. Your eyes meet. Maybe they become the love of your life, or a best friend, or a career connection you never dreamed of. All because of that inconvenient wait for your coffee (in this scenario, another version of 'burnt toast').
Maybe those stories sound a bit cheesy, but they form the basis of what has become known as the 'burnt toast theory'. Coined on TikTok, this concept is becoming increasingly popular on the app, with many people now thoroughly embracing it as a means to view the world through a glass-half-full lens.
At its core, the burnt toast theory is about reframing life’s inconveniences and failures, with the belief that everything that happens is part of a bigger plan for your life. It’s about giving reason to the moments of frustration or pain and it’s us telling ourselves that no matter what happens, the universe has our back. “It’s really been helping me accept things that are out of my control,” says one TikTok user. “[Burnt toast theory] is the idea that inconveniences in our lives are … either saving us from something more detrimental or pushing us in the direction we need to go.”
Another TikTok user explains how it has reframed the way she views dating, claiming that since she started using the burnt toast theory, her life has become exponentially better. "If somebody ghosts you, great, they just spared you from their inability to communicate," she says. "Someone tells you they're just not feeling it? Awesome. Frees you up to find someone who is."
Personally, I have long been the type of person who tells themselves that everything happens for a reason. I find comfort in tracing lines between the worst moments of my life and the best, noting the doors that closed, people who left and situations that arose — all leading me to a point of happiness or good fortune.
But sometimes, I do wonder why I can’t accept the randomness of life; why am I, and seemingly so many other people, dissatisfied with the notion that things just happen? So many of us search for ideas like the burnt toast theory to help us find meaning in terrible moments, but why?
“Our human instinct is to seek meaning by crafting chaos into cohesion,” Cameron Williams, a psychologist, tells Refinery29 on the wider appeal of the burnt toast theory.
The idea of crafting chaos into cohesion seems to sum it up perfectly, where it’s possible that, as humans, we just can’t stand the idea of randomness and so we have to try and wrangle these chaotic moments into a tidy narrative.
Williams believes there’s also an undercurrent of resilience to concepts like the burnt toast theory. Because, in reality, whilst the belief is that it’s the universe turning around our circumstances, the truth is, that it’s really all our own doing. “Our own resilience and strengths as humans allow us to take our unique circumstances and make them work for our benefit,” he says.
Williams explains that these narratives are “anchors in life’s storms” and that framing it this way allows the burnt toast theory to be seen as grounding. It’s something we can cling to in order to hold steady when life throws a curve ball our way or places our lives into the metaphorical washing machine and gives it a good spin.
Beyond providing a sense of comfort, the burnt toast theory also encourages us to embrace life’s setbacks or inconveniences, with the knowledge that there are better days ahead. Life is hard, we all know this, and sometimes when we’re slogging our way through, hitting yet an obstacle can feel like too much to bear.
But the burnt toast theory is all about seeing setbacks less as a giant obstruction, and instead, as a nudge by the universe to change directions.
It’s all about optimism, really. It doesn’t feel as extreme as the toxic optimism that urges people to view every tragedy through rose-tinted glasses or to blindly claim that lucky girl syndrome will bring you wealth and happiness. With the burnt toast theory, there’s still an acknowledgement that whatever happened to you was objectively bad, but that feeling is followed by the movement forward into what good could potentially come from it.
We acknowledge that with any concept like this, there is an element of privilege and there are circumstances in life that have no silver lining. But what is unique about the burnt toast theory is the idea that you might not always know exactly what it saved you from.
The burnt toast theory is also about sometimes accepting that when bad things happen, you might not know exactly why, but you simply have to trust that it was done for your greater good.
We’re all for anything that helps us cope with life’s bumps, whether small or large, because that’s likely to benefit us in some way. If we need to make up narratives in our heads to make sense of the overwhelming tangle that is our lives, then we’ll be doing that.
Sometimes we see the bigger picture immediately, sometimes later and sometimes never at all. But keeping a belief that it’s always there might just help you cope when that smoke starts rising from the toaster.