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"What-If" Thinking Can Be Harmful

we can't change the past
❝We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.❞ -Randy Pausch

It's raining out as we sit outside underneath our awning. The rain prevents us from having a campfire, but we're grateful that this awning is keeping us dry. We're talking about our day. We are in southern Indiana, and earlier today, we visited a couple of wineries.

There are more wineries in Indiana than I thought there were. It's nowhere near California's level, of course, but there are a lot more than we have back in Minnesota. After researching the wineries that were a reasonable drive away that also allowed our dog Bingo, we settled on three wineries that we could check out.

After such a great experience at the first winery we went to, we decided it probably made more sense to spend more time at two wineries instead of a little bit of time at three wineries. So we chose to skip the middle one and go straight to the third.

The second winery we went to - the third on our list - wasn't as fun. It was right on the highway, and their patio was more crowded. The tasting felt more rushed even though it was free, and there was more of a salesy vibe.

As we're talking, we thought that we probably screwed up. We should have gone to the second winery and skipped the third one. The first one was so great, and the third one was a drag. If only we had done things differently, we would be happier with our decision.

A little bit of regret showed up as we're talking. Then it hit us. We can only know this because we made the decisions we did. We only know this because of hindsight. Had we went to the first and second winery only, we would be back here wondering what it would have been like had we gone to the third.

What-ifs rarely do us any good.


Thinking about what could have been or what never was is so common that it has a name. Counterfactual thinking refers to thinking about these alternate realities.

This can be healthy if we are using downward counterfactual thinking. In other words, if we are comparing where we are now to various scenarios where we would have been worse off than we are now, then we can appreciate where we are. This is what gratitude is all about.

As good as gratitude is, that's not how most of us engage with counterfactual thinking. Most of us are using upward counterfactual thinking. This is where we compare our lives today with how we imagine our lives might be if only something else turned out differently. We have a long history of being susceptible to social comparison, but we're far more susceptible now in the age of social media.

I think of this as a different version of FOMO. But instead of it being the fear of missing out, it is instead the fear of having missed out (FOHMO?). It's a state of never being happy with our decisions because we're not entirely sure if that would have been the best decision.

counterfactual thinking is wondering what-if


Of course, it can be helpful to reflect back on the role we played and how things turned out. We can always learn from the past. In fact, I argue that we ought to learn from the past.

One thing that we can't do, however, is change the past. This is one of those sentences that sounds very obvious as you read it. Yet, it's very likely that sometime in the last 24 hours, you have replayed something in the past in your head over and over again. Ruminating on the things you can't change is not a good use of your time.

ruminating about the past is a bad use of your time


We all have our own life paths that we've come on. Nobody has seen what we've seen or experienced what we've experienced. It's tempting to think that things would have been better if only something had happened that didn't happen, or something wouldn't have happened that did happen. Unfortunately, we are horrible predictors.

When we think about all the ways our life would have been better, we are imagining an alternate reality where something in the past was different. When we do this, it's easy to gloss over the mundane details of everyday life. That means that even if the alternate reality that we're imagining happened, we ignore much of the details and overestimate the importance of the aspect of that life that we were imagining.

Humans are really good at getting used to their surroundings. This is why lottery winners who were miserable before winning the lottery are miserable after winning the lottery. This is why people who were happy before becoming paraplegics are happy after the fact. It's the same reason we are never satisfied. As soon as we achieve something, we get used to it, and we set out looking for more. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill.

there are no alternate realities in life