Counterfactuals – an interesting study

 Counterfactuals

Have you ever compared yourself to the fantasy of what you imagined your life would be like by age X and been disappointed? Two examples from Big Think in neuropsych:

I wish I had taken that other job instead of this one 10 years ago – my life would be so much better if I had.

I wish I would have gotten the part in that high school play, maybe I could have gotten into a theatre school and became an actor…

Both of these examples have the ideology that if you had made different choices, your life right now would be improved…This is known as upward counterfactual thinking and it can lead to current and future depression.

Downward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with psychological health

According to a 2000 study, downward counterfactual thinking can be linked with better psychological health compared to upward counterfactual thinking. More importantly, in cases where downward counterfactual thinking did lead to negative feelings, those feelings acted as something of a motivator for people to take productive actions to better their current situation.

  • I’m so thankful I studied secondary education in university instead of psychology like I had originally planned – I love teaching high school kids and I never would have gotten to do that…
  • I’m so happy I left David when I got the chance, I can’t imagine still being in an unhappy marriage with someone who doesn’t support me…

In these examples, we see the idea that if you had made different choices your life would not be as good as it is right now.

This week I encountered this term – counterfactuals –  in a short piece by Oliver Burkeman.

Choose the right counterfactual:

“Whenever you feel bad about yourself – for not accomplishing enough with the day, for instance, or for not being good enough at some skill you value highly – you’re implicitly comparing yourself with some other, “counterfactual” version of yourself. Often, that other version is a perfectionistic fantasy: the imaginary you who’d have got twice as much done today, or who’s as good at relationships/personal finances/parenting as you always thought you’d be by this point in life. So there’s a measure of liberation to be found simply by choosing a different comparison. Why judge your accomplishments today against some perfectly productive version of yourself, rather than by comparison to the you who could have stayed in bed, eating crisps? Why judge your money management skills against the imaginary multimillionaire you, instead of who you were a decade ago? These perspective-shifting tricks won’t solve your psychological issues in one fell swoop. But they can provide breathing space, a little room for manoeuvre – and some days that’s all you need.”

 

I found this piece intriguing and realistic. Not necessarily anything brand new, but wise words presented in a way that grabbed my attention. And so very people friendly, which I always appreciate. I suspect this is why I relate to Burkeman’s musings- he is favourably pre-disposed to the business of being human. No finger wagging. No formulas to improve. Rather, like an artist, you aren’t adding things to your painting rather you are noticing what you can take away. And there it is; you are left with the essentials.

It would be easy for me to consider all the “what if’s.”  But in the end, I have nothing to gain. My life is exactly how it is. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” William Bruce Cameron (often attributed to Einstein)

And what counts most for me is truly priceless. Our lives do not need to be perfect to live a good life. I am grateful everyday and I wouldn’t trade any of it – joys or sorrows, for the world.

Notes:

1:) Health Checks During Exteme Heat Events This is a practical document for understanding what to do in extreme heat. (thank you Rob and also for today’s beautiful photos from the westcoast)

2:) A little summer music by Carrie Newcomer A Simple Change of Heart

3:) “It is alright to be exactly what you are, who you are, where you are. Right here, right now.” Read the  entire poem, Right Here, by Dane Anthony. Click here.

4:) Last, but not least, my thanks. May you all have the strength and courage to keep placing one foot in front of the other. And may you have many loving, and joy-filled moments. Warmest wishes, Trudy

15 replies
    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      Hello Kathryn:Thank you for your kind notes week after week. I really appreciate them. I love that poem by Dane Anthony. Such a reminder. Warmest wishes and a hug from afar, Trudy

      Reply
    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      Thank you dear Jean for stopping by. I am lucky to have such lovely people reading my blog. Hugs all around this morning. Trudy

      Reply
  1. Diane
    Diane says:

    Oh boy! Did I ever need this right now! Thank you once again Trudy for so generously sharing your thoughts about the many challenges we all face in life.
    Your warm compassion is always comforting, soothing and inspiring.

    Reply
    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      I am consistently grateful, Diane, when a few words that you read here are just what is needed. I am lucky to discover so many fine teacher/writers whose wisdom I can incorporate and pass on, to be helpful to myself and others.With appreciation. Be as kind and generous to yourself as you are to your best friends and loved ones. Warmly, Trudy

      Reply
  2. Janice
    Janice says:

    thanks Trudy, I was not familiar with the term counterfactuals but it certainly resonates, a welcome shift of perspective I will keep in mind. love Jan

    Reply
    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      Thanks dear Janice. I find it brings a kinder and more realistic perspective to our comparisons. A good reminder for me. Thanks to Oliver Burkeman for the introduction. Wishing you a wonderful weekend. Hugs, trudy

      Reply
      • T Boyle
        T Boyle says:

        Thank you dear Janice. As Jim noted in his comment, the downward counterfactual is similar to gratitude. Perhaps self- reflective gratitude. Warmly, Trudy

    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      Thanks dear Meghan. It is hopefully a reminder to be mindful and a little more realistic when we choose our “what ifs.” Enjoy your last few days in Spain. Love, Mom

      Reply
  3. Jim Roberts
    Jim Roberts says:

    What I notice about “downward counterfactual” thinking is a similarity with gratitude. Do you see this, Trudy? Jim Roberts

    Reply
    • T Boyle
      T Boyle says:

      Hey Jim: what a delightful surprise. And yes I wholeheartedly agree with you. I’m so glad you drew the comparison and wrote about it. Thanks so much. Big hugs, trudy

      Reply
      • Jim Roberts
        Jim Roberts says:

        Yay, Trudy. You are giving so much back to the world. Everyone else benefits from your life. I’m sorry if I’m embarrassing you. How can we repay you?

      • T Boyle
        T Boyle says:

        Hi Jim, these are very kind, unexpected and encouraging words. Remember this, we are all in this together. As John Tarrant says” we are born and we die and in between we get to keep each other company and that’s the thing that counts the most.” I am truly the lucky one here. Warm wishes
        Trudy

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