Counterfactual thinking

When a person performs well and achieves something positive in their life, you would expect that he or she would be happy about that achievement. However, in reality, when a person achieves something, their mind can have the tendency to think “how much happier I would have been if I had performed even better and had achieved more”. i.e. the mind is more concerned about what has not been achieved, rather than appreciating what has been achieved. So despite the achievement, the person ends up being sad.

Psychologists have named this mistake, where one thinks about what could have been achieved, instead of appreciating what has been achieved, as the “counterfactual thinking” mistake. The name “counterfactual thinking” may sound a bit complicated, but in reality, as you will see in the example below, it is a simple concept to understand.

Sally is a student in a large school. She loves sports and is very competitive. Her school organised a major sports event and Sally excitedly put her name for a running race.

On the day of the sports event, there were over 50 competitors for the running races. A series of small races were first held to eliminate most of the runners. Sally did well in the small races and she was selected to run in the final race, in which the top three fastest runners would be decided.

In the final race, Sally ran well, but unfortunately one of her competitors did slightly better than her and therefore she came second. Prizes were given to the runners who came first, second, and third. However, even though Sally came second and had done better than nearly fifty other competitors, she felt disappointed as her mind kept wondering how great it would have been if she had come first. Because of her mind making the counterfactual thinking mistake, instead of enjoying her achievement of coming second, she was full of regret for not coming first.

As you have seen in the above example, the counterfactual thinking mistake can make a person feel unnecessarily sad, despite there being good reasons to be happy. So the next time you achieve something, do not let your mind make the mistake of filling you with regret about what was not achieved. Instead, celebrate and be happy about what you have achieved.