It happened without warning. One minute, our spirited and feisty parrot, Edgar, was
Source: Anton Atanasov/Pexels
his usual self, squawking as he sat atop his cage. The next, he fell. I rushed over to help him and swiftly became afraid that something was very wrong. His wings were sprawled out, he couldn’t stand, and he seemed worryingly docile and dazed. As I held him, dread washed through me as I thought life was draining out of the feathered friend I’d known for 23 years. Thankfully, I was incorrect. It turned out to be a seizure. He came out of his stupor; his strength and plucky persona returned. And although I was concerned that Edgar had experienced a seizure, my main feeling was relief that he was all right. But still, that scare brought the image to mind of not having him around.
The mind is impressively inventive, isn’t it? It allows us to envision what hasn’t happened yet. It’s responsible for virtually everything we rely on and enjoy. When you board a plane, read an article online, put on clothes, drive to work, drink your coffee, text a friend, or lay in your comfortable bed at night reading a gripping mystery (to name just a few examples), you have the mind to thank. The mind’s ingenuity gives us the means to aim toward a future we long for, such as reaching for that job or career we’re got our heart set on. It also aids us in steering clear of a future we hope to evade, such as exercising and eating healthy foods to safeguard against heart disease.
And the mind allows us to do something else that’s pretty exceptional when you stop and think about it. We can rewind time and un-do our past, leading us down an imaginary road toward an alternate present. In doing this, we see a picture of what we believe life would be like today if our yesterdays had happened differently. This type of imagery is called counterfactual thinking, and it can potently affect how we feel. Some situations are more likely to generate this kind of thinking than others. Moments we think of as “close calls” can make counterfactual ideas spring to mind with spectacular ease. For instance, if the train doors close as you’re running toward them, just a few feet away, it will probably feel more disappointing than if you know the train left 15 minutes before you even made it to the station. Why? Because a near miss makes it easier to imagine an alternate reality in which you had gotten there just a hair faster and boarded the train in time. And it works the other way too. Imagine that you raced toward the train as fast as you could and were the last to get on, just a second before the doors closed. You’d probably feel more relieved and happy in that situation than you would if you had boarded the train early and waited five minutes for the doors to close. The first scenario was a photo finish in which you almost didn’t make it, the second was not.
Let’s consider another example. Imagine that you won a medal in the Olympics. Which medal would make you happier, the silver or the bronze? A study found that athletes who won the bronze medal were actually happier than competitors who won the silver, and this is likely because their counterfactual thinking was different. The silver medalists came nearest to winning, and so they were more apt to imagine getting the gold. The bronze medalists, on the other hand, were one place away from returning home without a medal, leaving them with the satisfaction of knowing they avoided this disappointment.
But counterfactual thinking doesn’t just emerge in those sundry narrow escapes and misses. Research reveals that we can purposefully use counterfactual thinking in an unexpected way to boost our gratitude and happiness. When people imagine that a happy circumstance never transpired, they feel more grateful and upbeat than when they merely think about how that situation came to be. For instance, when people envision an alternate reality in which they never crossed paths with their significant other, they feel more contentment in the relationship than if they simply reflect on how they met their partner. And what’s interesting is that we humans don’t expect to feel this way. We don’t think we’ll feel uplifted by envisioning the lack of what we love, but we do.
So what if, instead of relishing what we appreciate, we mentally erase the past and imagine our good fortunes had never happened? As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, a time when many of us take time to contemplate how thankful we are for all that we have, perhaps this year we can put an intriguing, oddly elevating twist on these reflections. I know that one of mine will include my peppery, avian buddy.
~ Thomas Jefferson