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This Thanksgiving, remember that things could be worse

“Downward counterfactual thinking” — that is, imagining how things could be worse — is a quick and easy way to boost your well-being and gratitude.
Credit: Oskar / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Gratitude can improve physical and mental well-being, and it’s more or less expected at certain times, like Thanksgiving.
  • Gratitude can be cultivated over time with practices like identifying positive life events or keeping a positivity journal.
  • But if you’re in a pinch, downward counterfactual thinking—that is, imagining how things could be worse—is a quick and easy way to boost your well-being and gratitude. 

Thanksgiving is a time to come together and be grateful for all we have. Indeed, gratitude increases both physical and mental well-being

But what if your family drives you nuts or life just isn’t great this year? 

There are many ways to cultivate gratitude over time despite difficulties — like keeping a journal of positive life events, sharing your best memory from each evening over dinner, or purposefully identifying one happy face every day. 

But if you need a quick fix this season, just imagine how things could be worse. Called “downward counterfactual thinking,” this easy technique has been shown to boost gratitude and well-being in all sorts of contexts, and the mechanisms behind it can help explain all sorts of psychological phenomena, from why Olympic bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists to why downward social comparison makes us feel a little better about ourselves.   

What is counterfactual thinking?

Have you ever thought about how things could’ve turned out differently than they actually did? Psychologists call imagining such “if only” or “what if” scenarios counterfactual thinking (CFT). For example, after a car accident on a busy road, a driver might imagine, if only I had taken a different route, this crash wouldn’t have happened.

People spontaneously engage in CFT, especially after bad events, surprising outcomes, or close calls. Such thinking develops during childhood and is usually helpful, as it helps us piece together cause and effect, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Someone who got in a car accident, for example, might consider taking a safer route in the future (or driving more carefully, advocating for more traffic police, or whatever else they imagine could’ve avoided the accident).

In addition to guiding our future behavior, CFT affects all sorts of judgments and feelings ranging from blame to disappointment to relief.

Counterfactual thinking can make us feel better or worse

But when exactly does CFT makes us feel better, and when does it make us feel worse? It turns out that the type of counterfactual we imagine matters. 

In an early famous study, for example, researchers rated pictures for how happy Olympic medalists were after learning their ranking. Logically, one might predict that silver medalists should be happier than bronze medalists; after all, they objectively placed higher. However, results showed that on average silver medalists looked less happy than bronze medalists. (And if you’re skeptical of these counter-intuitive results, they have been replicated by other research teams using additional Olympic data.)

Why might people who objectively did better feel worse? According to CFT research, the groups would be likely to spontaneously imagine different counterfactuals. Specifically, the silver medalists—who barely missed gold—were more likely to imagine “upward” counterfactuals about how they could have received gold. On the other hand, the bronze medalists—who barely got a medal at all—were more likely to imagine “downward” counterfactuals about how they could have missed placing on the podium altogether. 

In short, imagining better outcomes makes us feel worse, whereas imagining worse outcomes makes us feel better. These results replicate in all sorts of scenarios ranging from gambling to natural disasters

We tend to imagine how things could’ve been better

Most of the time, though, people spontaneously imagine how things could’ve been better rather than how they could’ve been worse. After a car accident, for example, people might be more likely to think about how the accident could have been avoided altogether, rather than how they could’ve been more seriously injured. 

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The focus on upward CFT helps people learn cause and effect and improve their future behavior to avoid bad outcomes. But unfortunately for our well-being, it also leads to more shame, envy, and disappointment.

To increase positivity, engage in downward CFT

But luckily for us, we can intentionally imagine downward counterfactuals. And imagining how things could be worse boosts life satisfaction in multiple ways.

First, it highlights our luck. Our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative things than positive ones. But downward CFT reminds us of what we have that is good. This is similar to downward social comparison—that immature but effective technique of evaluating people who are worse off than we are to make us feel better about ourselves.  

Second, it rekindles good feelings from the past. People quickly adapt to good things. For example, a work promotion might make you very happy at first, and thinking back on it might make you smile briefly. But over time you’re likely to adjust to your higher position, so it becomes a normal part of life rather than something that makes you noticeably happier. 

CFT, however, can temporarily undo such emotional adaptation. Imagining how a good event might not have happened makes it seem more surprising and revives its positivity. Even simply considering that you might never have been born enhances well-being.

Finally, CFT can increase life meaning. Research finds that when people reflect on turning points in their lives—like where to attend college, whether to marry, or which career to enter—imagining alternatives makes the life event seem even more meaningful. In such cases, CFT increases focus on the upsides of the turning point and makes the event seem like it was “fated to be.”

So, this Thanksgiving, or any other time you’re struggling to conjure up positivity and gratitude, imagine how things could be worse. Doing so might not come as naturally as wishing things were better, but a little effort can boost your well-being…or at least provide you something to say when it’s your turn to say what you’re thankful for.


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