In a way, it seems like there’s no point wondering what could have been — if you hadn’t screwed up that job interview, if you’d worked up the nerve to text that girl, if you’d trusted your gut a decade ago and invested in Google.
Because the fact is that life unfolded the way it did, and thinking about how it might have unfolded otherwise — you’d be a happily married and disgustingly rich CEO — isn’t an obviously productive way to spend your time or mental energy.
In her new book, “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters,” Emily Esfahani Smith elegantly debunks that assumption. In a chapter on the importance of storytelling for finding meaning in your life, Esfahani Smith cites research on “counterfactual thinking,” which is the scientific term for thinking about what could have been.
One of the studies she highlights was led by Laura Kray at the University of California, Berkeley and published in 2010. The study found that counterfactual thinking is a way to find meaning in significant past events, whether they were positive or negative.
In one experiment in the study, researchers asked participants to think about a turning point in their lives, which the researchers labelled as either positive (“The day I met my current husband”), negative (“My mother died of breast cancer”), or neutral (“I moved to San Francisco”).
Some participants were asked to describe how their life would look if the turning point event had never happened; others simply recounted the turning point event in detail; others reflected on why the turning point event was meaningful.
Then researchers asked participants to respond to two statements about the turning point: “It made me who I am today” and “It gave meaning to my life.”
Results showed that counterfactual thinking led participants to perceive the turning point events as more meaningful than factual thinking — and, interestingly, even more than reflecting directly on the turning point’s meaning.
As Esfahani Smith points out in the book, the research suggests that counterfactual thinking helps us find meaning in our lives for two reasons:
1. We’re able to see otherwise hidden benefits to significant events. Participants in the study mostly imagined that their lives would be worse if the turning point event hadn’t happened.
2. It helps us tell more coherent stories about our lives — as though everything we’ve experienced has happened for a reason.
“The Power of Meaning” is based on the premise that happiness isn’t enough for a full life — we need to feel that our lives are meaningful, too. According to psychologists, that means we see our lives as significant and worthwhile, we believe our lives make sense, and our lives are driven by a sense of purpose.
So while thinking about the death of a parent or simply messing up a job interview might not be uplifting — at least not in the moment — it can give us something potentially more lasting and more important.
Counterfactual thinking doesn’t require too much time or effort — but it could precede a shift in mindset that frees you to appreciate your current reality.