What would have happened if I woke up before and didn’t miss the bus? What would have happened if I’d had the courage to talk to that very interesting person that I met? What would have happened if I had not broken up with my partner? And if I’d said to my boss what I really think?
These are some of the questions we constantly ask ourselves. What if, instead of taking this direction, we had made another choice? The possibilities are endless. In fact, we are perfectly aware that it is a kind of mental game, fantasy, yet we can not help but wonder “what if …?”
The situations that trigger these thoughts
1. “Almost” situation. It is a feeling you probably know well: everything seemed to be going well until a certain point, when something went wrong. Then you can not help but wonder what would have happened if you had done something different at some point of the journey.
For example, if you miss a flight because you arrived very late it is obvious that you can not help it. In this case you’ll be worry only about solving the problem. However, if you arrive just a minute late and the boarding gates close in front of you, you can not help but wonder what would have happened if you had woken up only five minutes before, if you had not met the traffic jam on the road or if you had not stopped to take that coffee.
This is a very painful feeling, since you were on the verge of achieving what you wanted, but you missed the opportunity for a bit. Therefore, you can not help but wonder where you went wrong and what you could do for this not to happen.
2. Abnormal situation. It is a fairly unlikely or rare feeling, something that usually does not happen. In this case, we can not help but wonder what would have happened if things had gone normally.
For example, imagine that one day you’re forced to take a different path to get to work and just in front of you is an accident that leaves you stuck for an hour, so you lose a meeting at work very important for your career. The chances that the road that you normally use to get to work was closed and that on the one you just taken there was an accident are few, but it went this way.
When you live unusual situations it will be difficult for you to stop thinking what would have happened if things had gone normally, if you had not met all the mishaps of the case. Who knows, probably you think also that it was a “sign of destiny”.
Why we tend to imagine routes that we don’t follow?
We constantly wonder what would have happened if we had taken a different direction to give meaning to our lives, to what is happening. Interestingly, imagining other possible scenarios helps us better understand our reality.
In this regard, a study conducted at Ohio University found that we tend to use this way of thinking according to the situation we’re living. We can imagine that things could have gone better or worse depending on the context.
These psychologists have found that when people know that they will not have a second chance to do things, they try to encourage themselves thinking that everything could have been worse, it is a form of consolation to help us accept what happened. But if we have a second chance we tend to think that things could have been much better, so we motivate ourselves to try once again and improve our performance.
The dark side of imagining fictitious scenarios
However, we must pay attention to this mechanism, because we can not always use it to cheer us up. In fact, if we ask us continously “what if …?” we risk to begin living in a fantasy world and we’ll feel deeply dissatisfied with our lives. Returning to reality, we may feel frustrated and feel guilt, and this won’t help.
The tendency to keep thinking about what might have happened may reflect a deep dissatisfaction with the reality or past decisions that have not yet fully accepted. In fact, we will be more likely to think like this if in the past we have made decisions influenced by others or by circumstances, decisions that were not born within us and of which we feel uncertain.
Thinking of all possible scenarios may seem a harmless mental exercise, but at some point of our journey, we must learn to let go some things, otherwise those thoughts will turn into resentment, guilt and regret. And this won’t be of any help.
Markman, K. D. et. Al. (2006) Counterfactual thinking and regulatory fit. Judgment and Decision Making; 1(2): 98–107.