Do you ever wonder whether things would be different if a specific event or decision happened differently or not at all? Perhaps you’ve thought of alternative versions of your life where you never met your significant other, ended up in a different job or lived on the other side of the world.
We’ve all looked back on our lives and reimagined important moments unfolding in different ways. This tendency to mentally simulate past events while tweaking some critical details is known as counterfactual (“contrary to fact”) thinking.
Counterfactual thinking has its benefits. A 2008 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that people who thought about how an important, positive event might not have happened (meeting a lover, for example) showed a higher increase in satisfaction than those who just thought about how the event occurred.
But occasionally our “What if…?” stories contribute to our discontent. Bronze medalists are generally happier than silver medalists because the latter are more likely to think about almost winning gold whereas former usually imagine the possibility of not winning anything at all.
Thinking about the past can also change our outlook on the future—for good or ill. Researchers at the University of North Texas found that reimagining a negative past event and thinking “it could have been worse” led to more optimistic expectations for the future whereas the thought “it could have been better” led to more pessimistic ones.
Share a couple sentences about a moment from your past that you often revisit and think, “What if…?” in the box below. Your story could be selected to appear in the print edition of Scientific American MIND or featured on the Web. To be considered for inclusion in the print edition of MIND, please submit your stories by August 2, 2015.