Mary was dating Jimmy. She worried she wasn’t ready for where the relationship seemed to be heading, so suggested they take a temporary break from each other. She wanted time to sort out her feelings. During the break, Jimmy met someone else, whom he married.

Today, Mary looks back on that decision and considers what her life would be like if she hadn’t decided to take that break.

What she is doing is called counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactual thinking is just what it sounds like, imagining something that is counter to a factual event and considering how that change would have affected your life today.

Mary’s counterfactual thinking can lead either upward or downward.

If her thoughts take an upward path, Mary imagines she would be happier today if she’d made a different decision. She imagines Jimmy proposing to her, them getting married, and their lives taking a pleasant, upward trend toward present-day bliss. In other words, she feels she made the wrong decision and now regrets it.

If her thoughts take a downward path, she imagines how miserable she would be today if she had made a different decision. If she hadn’t taken that break, she would be unhappy today and stuck with Jimmy, who is a controlling smotherer.

Upward counterfactual thinking is usually negative. I’d be happy today if I’d made a different decision, so I’m miserable instead.

“I’d be more successful today if I’d majored in business instead of art. I was young and idealistic and stupid.”

Downward counterfactual thinking is often positive. I’d be miserable today if I’d made a different decision, so I’m happy I didn’t make the wrong choice.

“When all my friends decided to visit California, I decided to visit my grandparents in Maine. If I had gone to California with my friends, I wouldn’t have learned so much about my grandparents and wouldn’t understand how like my grandmother I am.”

Counterfactual thinking is a tool that can build or destroy. It can make up feel like down, and down feel like up, depending on how we use it.

Dwelling on “I would be happy today if only I hadn’t . . .” is rarely helpful. It reeks of regret, and regret can lead to depression.

There are situations, though, when upward counterfactual thinking can be put to good use. Consider this:

“If I’d studied for the test instead of partying with my friends, I would have passed. So this time I’m going to stay in and study.”

How about counterfactual thinking on a grand scale?

The popular TV show, The Man in the High Castle, presents counterfactual thinking as an alternate history, considering what life would be like if Japan and Nazi Germany had won World War II, and these two countries ruled the U.S.

There is much more to counterfactual thinking then I’m presenting here, and articles about it are not hard to find. It’s a type of thinking we all do, so understanding it helps us understand ourselves.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: