If Only: How To Turn Regret Into Opportunity by Neal Roese, PhD came out in 2005. In his book Roese introduces the ideas of Counterfactuals. A Counterfactual is a product of what might commonly be called imagination. Counterfactuals shape our emotions. They work upward in wishing for what might have been better and downward in thinking of how it could have been worse. Counterfactuals most often center on how a problem could have been avoided and that is good for future reference and that is good.
Regret can be good for you. What is it that we regret most? 1) Education 2) Career 3) Intimacy 4) Parenting 5) Self-Improvement 6) Leisure 7) Finances 8) Relatives and In-Laws 9) Health 10) Friends 11) Spirituality 12) Community.
Interestingly, people remember details of tasks that are unfinished. However, they quickly forget those tasks that are completed. People also regret the things they didn’t do more than the things they did and failed at. Human emotions, says Roese, is a lot like a teenager in a Ferrari. He has limited experiences and unpracticed coordination. It is not an elegant sight to try and watch him drive. Nor is it an elegant sight to see the emotional landscape of the average human adult.
“The more you know about how counterfactual thinking operates, the more you can defend yourself against other’s cunning attempts to manipulate your decisions,” says Roese.
The construction of personal narrative stories about our lives that progress toward a goal for the greater good is a sure sign of mental health. If you keep a diary or tell other people about your tragic experiences can really help you. It is a fact that people who are successful are better at thinking about counterfactuals or the what if’s or if only’s than people who aren’t successful. On average most counterfactuals center on personal or controllable behavior. It is not about blame or judgment. It is a critical analysis of the situation and that can be very productive.
However, counterfactuals can have a dark side—depression. Mild regret is a short-lived emotion that is useful for spurring new actions. Severe regret is much rarer, but can be a first step toward the slippery slope down to mental illness. Self-Blame can lead to Severe Regret which can, in turn, lead to Depression. Tragic events can bring on a sense of despair in the average person, but that person is normally resilient. Depression happens when the average person doesn’t have a normal sense of resilience. Depression involves a chronic state of negative emotions such as sadness, anger and down right despair for months at a time. It is accompanied by a tendency to put one’s self down and worthless and unloved.
Counterfactuals can be counterproductive when the focus is on things out of one’s ability to control, when there is a fixation on things that are not likely to happen or when thoughts don’t dissipate and you obsess. You can’t see the big picture if you only focus on one tiny mistake or detail. Sometimes people will take a riskier path to avoid feeling rejected or avoid feeling regret. This is called anticipated regret and it can do a great deal of damage.
On the other side of depression is the creative side to counterfactuals. Fiction and personal narratives are a lot more dramatic when counterfactuals are added in. Take the movie Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow for example. It was centered on a whole series of counterfactuals and it made for a good movie. The Star Trek Episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” also made for good television. Close calls like from the movie The Titanic are also entertaining. And there is a whole genre of fiction dedicated to alternative histories. Speculative Fiction now its own genre instead of being a part of Science Fiction.
The truth is people create their own meaning and this is a good thing. We can learn to harness our regrets and realize that we haven’t necessarily failed. We can take those mistakes we made and learn from them. While counterfactuals can be useful tools, we must remember to spring back fast, don’t dwell, don’t overreact, look further for additional reasoning that can be grasped from the situation, don’t over-think, do write it down and always keep an eye on that bigger picture.