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4 Reasons to Think About What Might Have Been

You've got a psychological immune system. Learn how to use it.

Individual happiness depends not just on our experiences—how successful we are at meeting our goals in life and getting what we want—but how we think about and make sense of our experiences.

Painful or untoward experiences are processed partly through what Daniel Gilbert has called the unconscious “psychological immune system." Faced with rejection or failure, we explain what’s happened in ways that make us feel better—remembering the flaws of a departed lover or the downside to a job from which we’ve been fired. It can be a slippery slope, Gilbert points out, because the system shouldn’t defend us so much that we don’t take any responsibility for what happened, or defend us so little that we can’t deal with the experience. A healthy psychological immune system allows us feel good enough that we can cope—“She really wasn’t a good fit for me”—but bad enough that we can still learn from and adjust our behavior—“I can see how I appeared unresponsive and I’m going to try harder the next time I date."

Unfortunately, while explanations help us cope, they also take the glow off moments that make us happy. Research published by Timothy Wilson and others, including Gilbert, addresses what they call the pleasure paradox: Human beings respond with more robust emotions when an event seems extraordinary or unpredictable and our propensity for explaining diminishes the staying power of triumph. Say you get promoted and you are initially thrilled but then you start thinking about all that you did to deserve it—your work, the time, the extraordinary effort—and, bit by bit, the feeling of triumph fades and you’re left thinking, “Of course I was promoted—I earned it.” What blissed you out at first has become explicable and ordinary.

It turns out, though, that there is a way of thinking about experience that can sustain happiness, and more.

The Power of Counterfactual Thinking

On a conscious level, at one point or another, all of us think about both what has happened and what might have been. You might wonder what your life would have been like if you’d followed your heart and gone to California when you were 20, or married your college sweetheart, or gone to law school, or taken that other job you were offered five years ago.

"If only” thinking can consign you to the Neverland of unrealistic daydreams, but it can also set you free.

The fancy name for this is counterfactual thinking and it plays an important and complicated role in how human beings make sense of experiences—both good and bad—as well as our life stories. How we use counterfactual thinking explains a great deal about how we can sustain happiness as well as cope with setbacks.

Here's how it can work for you:

1. Maximize your happiness.

You know all those tea cosies and refrigerator magnets exhorting you to count your blessings? Research by Minkyung Koo and others showed that a much more effective way of sustaining happiness and satisfaction is to mentally subtract the good things in your life. They cleverly refer to the holiday movie classic It’s A Wonderful Life in which George Bailey is treated to the subtraction lesson by his guardian angel as he ponders suicide.

People felt better about a relationship, for example, after thinking about life would be like without that close person than they did thinking about the day they first met. If you want to sustain your feelings of joy and satisfaction, contemplate your life without that circumstance or person. Counterfactual thinking induces gratitude.

2. Motivate yourself to act and change.

Counterfactual thinking can evoke regret, but studies show it is also highly motivational. Kao Epstude and Neal J. Roese point out that the focus of counterfactual thought can be a better alternative to one’s present situation—an upward counterfactual—or one which is actually worse than the present—a downward counterfactual. While upward counterfactual thoughts can produce regret (“If I’d only married Jim, I’d be so happy today”), they can also play an important role in motivating us when we hit a snag or setback.

Say you’ve been passed over for a promotion you’d been counting on, or didn’t get the job you really wanted. You feel regret, of course, but upward counterfactual thinking—imagining what it would have been like if you gotten the job—can also get you to think about what you might have done to nail it. That, in turn, can get you strategizing about how to improve your approach or presentation in the future.

Downward counterfactual thinking—visualizing a worse situation—also makes you feel better (for example, at least you still have your job unlike some of your unlucky colleagues) but it won’t motivate you to act. And Using counterfactual thinking about a situation you can’t possibly change (you should have married someone else, gone to dental school 20 years ago, or not had a third child) will mire you in regret and keep you stuck.

Being aware of how you can actively use counterfactual thinking also helps you avoid the psychological immune system’s traps. If your defenses are telling you that your boss is a jerk who wouldn’t know a great employee if he fell on one, or that the job interviewer was biased because he hates blondes or people who went to public colleges, you’re not going to move forward, because those thoughts will not help you spring into action and change your lot. Consciously using counterfactual thinking will help you self-correct.

3. Give meaning to life events.

Putting pivotal events into a meaningful context is a key to psychological health. There’s plenty of evidence that one way we attribute meaning is by thinking, “What would my life be like if this event hadn’t happened?” Laura J. Kray and others examined counterfactual thinking and discovered that not only does mentally subtracting an event help you understand its importance—it also increases your sense that the event was destined or “meant to be.” That, in turn, increases the meaning of the event. Whether an event is attributed to destiny or deity, the authors write, "When people believe their lives are as they were meant to be, they experience the gratification of being on the ‘right’ course and fulfilling their life’s mission.” Their experiments reconfirm that “undoing the turning point”—using the mental exercise of subtracting the pivotal moment rather than focusing on it directly—led people to derive more meaning and appreciate an event more.

4. Improve your analytical thinking.

Laura J. Kray and her colleagues hypothesized that a counterfactual mind-set increased our ability to think about things in relation to each other—enhancing analytical thinking. Being able to consider alternative realities also bolstered understanding causality. Because counterfactual thinking allows you to focus on things in relationship to each other, it can help you overcome certain biases in thought, such as functional fixedness—thinking about something in a single context—which impede creative problem-solving.

Functional fixedness was famously measured in1945, in an experiment called Duncker’s Candle Problem. Participants were given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks and asked to affix the candle to the wall in such a way that, when lit, wax wouldn’t drip onto the floor.

(You might want to think about how you’d solve this problem before you read on.)

The solution to the problem is to dump out the tacks, tack the box to the wall, put the candle in or on top of the box, and light it. You can’t solve the problem unless you have the ability to see the box holding the tacks as something other than a container for tacks, which is precisely what counterfactual thinking promotes.

Both mental subtraction and what-might-have-been thinking are skills that should be in everyone’s cognitive toolbox.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014

Illustration Copyright © Peg Streep and Claudia Karabaic Sargent #psychologywithsoul


READ MY NEW BOOK: Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work

READ Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Wilson, Timothy D., David B. Centerbar, Deborah A. Kermer, and Daniel T. Gilbert, “The Pleasures of Uncertainty: Prolonging Positive Moods in Ways People Do Not Anticipate,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2005),, vol. 88, no. 1m 5-21.

Epstude, Kai and Neal J. Roese, “The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking,” Personality and Social Psychology Review (2008), vol.12, no. 2, 168-192.

Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert, It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.

Kray, Laura J., Linda George, Katie Lijenquist, Adam Galinsky, Philip Tetlock, and Neal J, Roese, “From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), vol. 98, no, 1, 106-118.

Kray, Laura J., Adam D. Galinsky and Elaine Wong, “Thinking Within the Box: The Relational Processing Style Elicited by Counterfactual Mind-Sets,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2006), vol. 91, no. 1, 33-48.

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