How reimagining the past can shape our future for the better.

Do you have a significant other? If so, I bet you have a heartwarming story of how you two met and fell in love. 

How-we-met is a stable of rom-com storytelling. Some folks meet online, others through friends and some at work or a bar. Some people have unique how-we-met tales that defy all common sense and logic. They comply you to ask — What-if?

To give a personal example: How I met my boyfriend is a classic ‘love-at-first-sight’ scenario with a twist. Two strangers connected across a crowded room somewhere in Tokyo. I could hardly string a sentence in Japanese. He spoke no English.

We were both 22 years old. To communicate, we used smiles, hand gestures and a dictionary. We drew pictures in a sketchbook to make each other laugh.

It was a revelation that you can build a relationship based on doing things without much chat being necessary — I signed up for Japanese classes but not before our story became legend among our friends. It was a triumph of love over language!

When I think of how-we-met I sometimes imagine — What if?

What if I hadn’t gone to that party?
What if I didn’t met my boyfriend?
Would I have stayed in Japan?
Would I have learnt how to speak Japanese?

It’s impossible to know the answer — yet I continue to indulge in the fascinating world of what-if?


What-if-ism

We rely on our imagination for many things.

As writers we use it to dream up storylines and characters. Artists and designers rely on it to create new works.

As children, we play at make-believe by instinct. It shapes our cognitive and behavioral development.

As adults, we routinely reflect on our experiences by imagining the ways things could have gone differently. This type of speculation is what cognitive scientists refer to as counterfactual thinking.

  • What if certain parameters were altered?
  • How would my life have turned out?
  • What would my life’s story be?

We dip into alternative realities with a frequency and ease that suggests this habit is core to the human experience. — F. de Brigard, Cognitive Scientist.

With counterfactual thinking we can transcend our immediate present to rewrite our past or envisage an alternative future.

Counterfactual thinking is not whimsical fantasy

Replaying or reminiscing about experiences, people and events helps us to make sense of our everyday lives. It’s a way to cement bonds with others too.

For instance, when my boyfriend recounts the story of how-we-met he becomes sentimental. He gazes at me as if unable to imagine an alternative reality where I am not part of his life. It was our destiny! It was meant to be!

It makes for a good story at any rate 🙂


Sliding doors to success

According to psychologists, what-if-ism is most valuable when we leverage “lessons” to improve our lives. This is known as upward counterfactual thinking.

To give an example: In my 20s, I aimed to pass the top level of Japanese Proficiency Exam. It’s a notoriously hard exam that I sat three times before I passed. To stay motivated, I imagined how this qualification would help me to step up into a more fulfilling career.

When I finally passed, I jumped into a new role at work and never looked back. That’s the power of upward counterfactual thinking.

The flip side is downward counterfactuals. Instead of picturing a better outcome, you ruminate on past mistakes.

Would’ve…
Could’ve…
Should’ve…

Imaging what would have been if you could have changed some little thing, some decision in your life, is counterproductive and leaves you unhappy.

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. — Charles R. Swindoll

Did you know that all people have similar life experiences?

Behavioral scientists have spent a lot of time studying happiness. What we know is this:

Unhappy people focus more on unpleasant events in their life. Happy people seek out information and experiences that brightens their mood.

Ergo — you’re never stuck in life unless you chose to be.


There are 2 ways to reimagine your way to a happier and more productive life.

1) Don’t endlessly think what-if

To increase your happiness quotient, don’t waste your present time thinking about how you could have changed the past.

Take the lessons and move on.

Even if you fall on your face, you are still moving forward. — Victor Kaim, Entrepreneur

2) Take steps toward what is important to you

Everyday, no matter how small, do something tangible that moves you closer toward one of your goals.

Trust me, a life plagued by regret is not a recipe for happiness.

If plan A fails, remember there are 25 more letters. — Chris Guillebeau, entrepreneur and bestselling author


The last word

Counterfactual thinking can have a powerful impact on our lives. It helps us make sense of memories and creates connectedness between people.

When things don’t go well, don’t wallow in disappoint over how you got to where you are now — don’t ruminate on what-if — think about what you need to do to get to where you want to be.

You’re capable of making a lot of power moves — should you chose to do so.

Self-awareness is key!

Till next time,

Lucy 4.0

Key references: Wikipedia, Why We Imagine, F. de Brigard

Writing at the intersection of mind, spirit and creativity. My secret is to walk 10K daily to focus my mind and relax.
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Writing at the intersection of mind, spirit and creativity. My secret is to walk 10K daily to focus my mind and relax.
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