Three days ago my husband was told he didn’t get the promotion he wanted and had almost been promised by his boss. He has been angry (and sad and frustrated and going through Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief) and he has lost sleep the last over the situation. His reaction and behavior has reminded me of friends and family members who have received potentially devastating health news. But bad business news and bad health news are both areas where counterfactual thinking can help if one does it in the mindset of brainstorming, instead of that of regret.

Counterfactual thinking is defined as “thinking about what might have been or “alternatives to past events.” And it has been described by psychologists and by the Harvard Business Review as a “natural and perfectly reasonable reaction, but it’s psychologically painful without much benefit.”

But what if we could transform the what-ifs into constructive trains of thought? My husband is still working on this and I’m trying to help him. But Paul Kraus, the world’s longest survivor of mesothelioma, has figured out a way to do this and talked to me about it in an interview. The first thing he said is when he was told by the doctors what he had, “my wife and I accepted the diagnosis but not the prognosis.” And then they brainstormed and researched everything they could about the disease and what might help

  1. Counterfactual thinking can help you look at things from many angles.
    For a few moments, Kraus thought about what might have been if he hadn’t spent one summer during college working in an asbestos factory forty years before. He thought about how he had been living his life and looked at it from many angles — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
  2. Counterfactual thinking can bolster your creativity in future reasoning.  
    Kray, Galinsky and Wong write:

    Although the adage “What’s done is done” may suggest that pondering the past is an unproductive use of time, the present research provides strong evidence to suggest that imagining alternatives to past realities by considering a different path, choice, or action has a powerful impact on how future analytic and creative problems are solved. In particular, generating counterfactuals in one context appears to alter thought processes to be more relational in subsequent contexts, despite the new context’s irrelevance to the imagined world.

    In other words, counterfactual thinking can lead to increased creativity when it comes to problem-solving future challenges. My husband, in ruminating on the five interview questions and his answers, has come up with better (and more creative answers) for those questions in future interviews…which brings us to the next benefit of counterfactual thinking.

  3. Counterfactual thinking can lead you to do things differently in the future. 
    For my husband, his counterfactual thinking is not only encouraging him to show up in interviews differently but to show up at work differently. He has consciously decided he needs to be more assertive and outspoken when in meetings with the executives so that he is more of a presence and known entity.

    For Paul Kraus, thinking about what might have been caused him to adopt a multifaceted approach to his wellness that incorporated his mind, body and spirit, and included changing his diet, starting a meditation practice and a gratitude mindset. “Cancer helped me deal with my ego; that is the enemy of so many people,” Kraus says.

  4. Counterfactual thinking can lead you to action.
    To help others learn to think positively despite any diagnoses the way he has, Kraus has written a book titled
    Surviving Mesothelioma and Other Cancers: A Patient’s Guide, which he offers on his website free of charge to others who have been diagnosed with cancer. 

    For my husband, his counterfactual thinking has led him to create a LinkedIn profile and to investigate the possibility of working for another company (something out of his comfort zone after 30 years of corporate loyalty). And he’s been determining other actions he can take as he works through his emotions.

The key to using counterfactual thinking as a benefit, not a burden, is to not get stuck in the what-ifs or the replay of the scenario like a song frozen on repeat. And if you need a reminder of how to let go of the stuck thoughts, this Psych Central blog may help.