What would have happened if you got up early and didn't miss the bus? What would have happened if you had had the courage to talk to that very interesting person you met? What would have happened if you hadn't broken up with your partner? What if you told your boss what you really thought?
These are some of the questions we constantly ask ourselves. What would have happened if, instead of taking this direction, I had chosen another one? The possibilities at our disposal are practically endless. In reality, we are aware that it is a kind of mental game, of fantasy, however we cannot help but wonder "What would have happened if ...?"
The situations that trigger these thoughts
1. “Almost” situation. This is a feeling you probably know well: everything seemed to be going well up to a certain point, when something went wrong. Then you can't help but wonder what would have happened if you had done something different at some point along the way.
For example, if you miss a flight because you are late it is obvious that you will not be able to do anything about it. In this case you will only worry about solving the problem. However, if you arrive just a minute late and they close the boarding gates in front of your eyes, you can't help but wonder what would have happened if you woke up just 5 minutes earlier, if you hadn't encountered the traffic jam on the road or if you hadn't stopped for a coffee.
This is a particularly painful feeling, as you were on the verge of achieving what you wanted, but missed the opportunity by a whisker. Therefore, you can't help but wonder where you went wrong and what you could do to prevent this from happening.
2. Abnormal situation. It's a fairly unlikely or rare sensation, something that usually doesn't happen. If so, we can't help but wonder what would have happened if things had gone normally.
For example, imagine that one day you are forced to take a different route to work and just in front of you an accident occurs that leaves you stuck for an hour, so you miss a business meeting that is important to your career. The chances that the road you normally use to get to work would be closed and an accident on the one you just took are slim, but that's the way it went.
When you live in unusual situations, it is difficult for you to stop thinking about what would have happened if things had gone normally, if you hadn't had all the setbacks. Who knows, you will probably even think that it was a "sign of destiny".
Why do we tend to imagine paths we never follow?
We continually wonder what would have happened if we had taken another direction to give meaning to our life, to what is happening. It is interesting to note that by imagining other possible scenarios we are able to better understand our reality.
In this regard, a study conducted at the University of Ohio revealed that we tend to use this way of thinking depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. We can imagine that things could have been better or worse depending on the context.
These psychologists have found that when people know they won't have a second chance to do things, they try to console themselves by 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 again and improve our performance.
The dark side of imagining fictional scenarios
Either way, we need to pay attention to this mechanism, because we can't always use it to lift our spirits. In fact, if we continually ask ourselves "what would have happened if ...?" we risk starting to live in an imaginary world and will feel deeply dissatisfied with our life. Returning to reality, we can feel frustrated and feel guilty, and that won't help us.
The tendency to continually think about what could have happened may reflect a deep dissatisfaction with reality or past decisions that we have not yet fully accepted. In fact, we will be more likely to think in this way 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 do not feel confident.
Thinking of all possible scenarios may seem like a harmless mental exercise, but at some point on our journey, we must learn to let go of some things, otherwise those thoughts will turn into resentment, guilt and regret. And this will do us no good.