You probably have heard the idea of “living in the moment.” I tend to associate it with Buddhist traditions, but it has Eastern and Western origins.
Living in the moment means that you take little thought for the future, but do whatever enhances what’s happening right now. there is also the phrase “living for the moment” which means that it’s those special moments that make life worth living.
These seem to be valid philosophies and I would guess that most of us want to be living in the moment or living in the now. But it is not that easy. Too often our thoughts take us to the past or future.
This is a kind of time traveling that is not only possible but probable. We go back to things to earlier points in our lives all the time. That’s not a bad thing. But sometimes we go back and dwell on particular turning points in our lives and imagine how things could have turned out differently.
These “What if?” and “If I had only…” kinds of thought can become obsessions.
The term in psychology for this is counterfactual thinking.
We all know that thoughts in the present about the past can never change the past, so why do we do this?
Some kinds of events prompt this kind of thinking about alternatives to life events. Yes, we know that this is thinking that is “counter to the facts,” and yet we do it.
Studies about this way of thinking are not new. Early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato pondered why we have “subjunctive suppositions” about nonexistent but feasible outcomes.
“Counterfactual” mean “contrary to the facts.” Lately, the news has been full of talk about facts, alternative facts, false facts and other rather ridiculous versions of “facts.” I saw a review of Hillary Clinton’s book that came out after her election defeat, What Happened, and the book was described in a way that made it seem like a book-length counter factual about “if I/we/they had only…”
This kind of thinking is understandable as a coping mechanism.
Listening to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, “Rewinding and Rewriting,” brought this topic to mind. They spoke there about the things that usually generate this kind of thinking. First, the past incident had a clearly negative outcome. It is likely to be something out of the ordinary. And it was something in which you played, or could have played, a key role in changing.
We imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if only we had done something differently. We might not have even been a part of the event, but we could have been there.
The more serious the event, the more likely it is that we will turn to counterfactual thinking. So, when we don’t put money in the parking meter to run into a store quickly and we get a ticket, that mat seem like something we could have changed, but it’s relatively insignificant. You probably won’t dwell on that thought for days, weeks, months or years. But if an accident results in a serious injury or death and you feel you could have prevented it if you (or someone else) had done something differently, that will linger in the mind.
I had an accident the first week I owned my first car. I turned down a street on the way home and misjudged distance and clipped another car. I was a new driver, but really I had gone down that particular street, which was not the way I would normally go home, because I was hoping a girl I knew who lived there would see me driving my new car. I was angry with myself, and for weeks after I thought about how I could have just gone home the normal way and avoided the accident. My mother followed a different philosophy. She would say that maybe if I had gone the usual way I might have had a worse accident. I’m not sure if that is optimism or pessimism.
Two examples that I found online of counterfactual thinking point out how it can be harmful and useful. One case looks at Olympic Medalists. The study found that counterfactual thinking seems to explain why bronze medalists are often more satisfied with the outcome than silver medalists. Silver medalists tend to focus on how close they were to the gold medal and think more about what they might have done to get gold. Bronze medalists tend to think about how they could have not received a medal at all. The researchers call this downward counterfactual thinking.
Another study from the same researchers looked at the satisfaction of college students with their grades, which is not that different from the Olympic athletes. The study is called “When doing better means feeling worse: The effects of categorical cutoff points on counterfactual thinking and satisfaction.” They studied the satisfaction of college students based on whether their grade just missed the cut off versus if they had just made the cutoff for a grade category. Students who just made it into a grade category ( for example, just barely got a “B”) tended to downward counterfactual think and were more satisfied. They thought that things could have been worse. Students that were extremely close to making it into the next highest category but missed (for example, they got a high “B” but just missed the “A” grade) showed higher dissatisfaction and tended to upward counterfactual think. They focused on how the situation could have been better and things that they “could have” done.
I believe that living in and for the present moment is very important. I try not to dwell in the past. I try not to be counterfactual in thinking about past event. But it is easy to fall into the harmful habit of wanting to change the past.
I saw an article years ago about a survey that asked people, “If you could travel to your own past, what time would you return to and why?” The most common answers involved going back to change something the person either had done or had not done. Some people wanted to go back and relive a moment – the birth of a child, a great day with a loved one – but most people wanted to change the past in order to change the present.
Most scientists who have pondered time travel have said the same kinds of things about the experience. Most of their ideas don’t make for a good story plot.
We could go back in our own timeline, but we could not travel back before we existed. You’re not going to do anything about Hitler or the Kennedy assassination unless you lived through hose events.
If we went back, we would simply relive what had happened and we could not change anything. It would put us in a loop where we would again move through time until the point when we traveled back and then return and do it all over again. It’s the movie Groundhog Day.
If we went back and did change something, the entire series of events after that would change. In fact, they might change in ways that would eliminate us from the world that follows. What happens to us then?
This killjoy kind of science is a reminder that we can’t change the past. We live in the moment of now, and we need to be very conscious of the now and appreciate it.