Why we can’t stop thinking about “what might have been”

By US Desk
Fri, 04, 21

A classic study of Olympic athletes demonstrated how counterfactual thinking can be both a blessing and a curse....


How many times have you wondered about the proverbial “road not taken” and tormented yourself with fantasies of how much better things might have been had the younger you made different decisions? Or, on the flip side, have you breathed a sigh of relief when you recognise that one of your lucky choices enabled you to dodge a bullet and end up much better off than you might have been, had things gone a different way?

This type of mental “what-ifism” is called counterfactual thinking. Picturing an alternative outcome to what has actually happened in one’s life holds an irresistible appeal. And the more important the event in question is, the more intense our counterfactual thinking about it will be.

It can be an effective tool for regulating our emotions such as regret, gratitude, and guilt, and making us more resilient. As terrible as their current situation is, the mind of the counterfactual thinker can easily imagine circumstances that would have been even worse—paving the way for positive emotions such as relief and gratitude that might help them through a very dark time in their lives.

A classic study of Olympic athletes demonstrated how counterfactual thinking can be both a blessing and a curse. It turns out that silver medalists are often very unhappy about their remarkable achievement, but bronze medalists are not. The reason for this is that the silver medalist is engaging in “upward” counterfactual thinking; it is easy to see how close he or she came to being the champion, only to fall short. The bronze medalist, however, thinking counterfactually in a “downward” direction, sees how close he or she was to not getting a medal at all, resulting in a very different emotional experience.

So, in addition to the emotional regulation function, counterfactual thinking exists to helps us crystallise the goals that are most important to us and to improve our ability to wisely choose future courses of action.

Four healthy ways to get more energy

The twin gods of conquering the post-lunch slump are caffeine and sugar. But such pick-me-ups are temporary. What if there were a way to have more energy that wasn’t unhealthy, addictive or expensive?

Get moving

Use exercise to nourish you, not punish you. Find a way to move that will give you energy, rather than using exercise to tire yourself out. To find motivation to get moving, even when you are feeling worn out or low, try to focus on achievable goals. Even 10 minutes of movement will energise you.

Check your iron levels

Iron deficiency can cause symptoms including tiredness, lack of energy and shortness of breath. Include more dark-green leafy vegetables, iron-fortified cereals and pulses, as well as iron supplements, if necessary.

Same goes for vitamin D

The first sign of vitamin D deficiency can be fatigue. So do take a vitamin D tablet in winter if you feel you may be deficient.

Break from technology

When people walk in nature, they get a boost in vitality or energy. This brighter mood lasts for longer and has a more powerful effect than things like drinking coffee or eating chocolate. Crucially, you need to be engaged with nature when out walking; you can’t be on your mobile phone.