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Cultivate Gratitude, Suck Regrets From Your Life and Be Happier


Regrets, Counterfactuals and Gratitude
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The whiff of sweet perfume that whizzed past me, that would have normally hooked my eyes, like a Mustad 9/10, could not draw my focus away from the approaching sense of warmth and familiarity. My pre-frontal cortex, working in cahoots with its cohorts, translated information from gait and dimension into a sense of positive anticipation. Get ready for a friend. Get ready for J.

 I was thrilled to see J. coming my way. Except for a few more wrinkles and a lot less hair, he was definitely, J. A friend from 10 years ago. A friend who easily lured the counterfactuals out of my number two cut covered shell.

What if he had stayed as long as I had? What greater art could we have shipped? What if I had trusted him more and if he had trusted me more? What if we had trusted each other enough to marry our talents and skills to give the world another start-up?

I had, for as long as we were together, respected J. for his street smarter perspective of things. He was also points ahead in the business savvy segment. The invisible wedge that stopped me from being closer was a feeling I got when we talked projects. He seemed dangerously assuring. A smugness I did not like.

Counterfactuals. Just what it is. A counter to a fact, an imagined alternative to an event that happened. The what might have been. The thinking mode that packs a punch, either fueling happiness or fermenting sorrow.

NealRoese, Ph.D., the social psychologist and the SC Johnson Chair in Global Marketing at the School of Management, Northwestern University is also the author of “If Only,” the definitive book on regret and counterfactual thinking. I like this narrative; “At the unconscious level, each event in our lives gain meaning via silent comparison to an alternative, counterfactual event that might have taken place instead. And at the level of our most passionate feelings, counterfactuals (along with other kinds of commonly drawn comparisons) sculpt the contours of our emotions, making us feel worse or better depending on what exactly might have been. On every level, thinking about what might have been shapes the very meaning we see in life.”

But there are clues. To their root. “Counterfactuals are a product of what might commonly be called imagination, but they are also much more.” If they are oddities. “But everyone generates counterfactuals. All of us, young and old, every day, with little difficulty. Counterfactuals are an automatic product of the normal operation of human brains.”

Regret, Counterfactuals and Gratitude
Photo: Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash
Are counterfactuals unrestrained, unrealistic products of imagination? They are not, according to the expert. “By contrast, counterfactuals are quite realistic. They are disciplined, in a way that preserves the essential fabric of reality while altering just one of a few elements.”

As my wondering with J. We worked together. I was thinking what might have been if we had worked together longer. We were doing creative work. I was wondering if we could have done better if we had worked longer together. Since we were working together, trust must be a key ingredient for mutual success. I was pondering if we had more confidence with each other, could we even partner in a business, using our talents and skills. The counterfactuals were grounded in reality.

As J stopped when he reached talking distance, I knew how he was going to start the conversation. I had been asked the same question every time I met someone I had not seen for a while. Every time, a sense of discomfort would arise. Yet, I did not take the preemptive move of a ready-made answer.

I agree with Roese. The counterfactual, “What if Kennedy has survived the shooting?” would be a more engaging question. That question would generate vociferous interaction within the shell covered by the number two cut.

 As sure as the sunbird would stab it proboscis into a nectar generating flower, J. pierced through the emptiness between us with this store shelf variety question, “What’re you doing now?”

The question has the “I know you took the VSP” all over. VSP. Voluntary Separation Package.

I was offered early retirement. I qualified with ‘Rule 75.’ The 75 is sum of your age and service years. I was 19 over 75. Rumor had it that that was the last cycle of 20 days a year VSP. It used to be 30 days a year. I took up the offer.

“Nothing…” I replied.

“What do I have?” I scrambled in my memory drawer. Did I say something before? I needed something to avoid the “dead on retirement” tag. I grabbed at something that looked like me.

“I am thinking about starting a blog.”

J. and I used to make creative stuff. Developmental and corporate videos. I was the concept guy and script writer. Also the team lead.

J. was the editing guy. We had another guy who was the shooter. J. used to get the difficult process things done. He was also the flowchart artist. He was always doing flowcharts. On big pieces of paper. On small pieces of paper. On tiny bits of paper. He was always thinking lines, diamonds and boxes. Although it looked like he wanted to avoid engagement with people, we left him alone. Ours was an outcome based relationship.

“O. K. Blogging suits you. Bugger, you’ve always enjoyed writing.”  

Not because J. knew any better. About my enjoying writing. It’s from how I made my living.

I had always been paid to write. Or paid partly to write. During the high school holidays, I took up the offer a sports stringer with a local daily. A rookie. Fifty cents per column inch. I would have felt wealthy if the editor had swallowed my five to six inch report every time. I couldn’t seem to escape his golf ball eyes and red pen.

This is dangerous territory. I am about to hit the rewind button. When you hit the rewind button for your life, you have to choose between two streams of consciousness. One takes you on the regretful tour and the other on a re-grateful tour. The former parades what you missed out. The latter offers you power to savor the buffet of what you’ve been blessed of.

The good professor teaches that you will be mired in unhelpful counterfactuals and regrets if you make upward comparison. Downward comparison attracts gratitude. Gratitude is the key for the door to happiness.

 I am going to take a few runs with the idea of downward comparison. See if this works.

Photo : Ekhtakarina Shakparova on Unsplash
Back to the sports stringer hustle. I was happy mingling with the snobbish old timers of the Press. Who, only after some pleading, and bribed with pickled olives or Hacks will help me name the players. But the gig. Earned enough for food. And bus rides. And the pride of being a member of the Press. Better than nothing.

At least I need not worry about lunch at my next job. Free lunch and 90 dollars our currency per month. Writing copy for the only supermarket in town. For their seasonal sale adverts. And billboards.

Take 50 dollars off. Installment for the bike I needed. To help me whizz. The umpteenth trips. For approvals. And apologies. 40 dollars for the month. And the pride of reading your copy in the local newspapers and your sales hooks on the billboard. Better than nothing.

Designed logos for a local conglomerate. Diversified businesses. Two designs paid. One rejected. Worth 250 dollars. But was used later. Slightly altered. No payment made. Too small to sue. 250 dollars. Too much for a Chinese multimillionaire. Win some. Lose some. Better than nothing.

God smiled. A large American firm. Took me in. Personnel Clerk. Sports. “And other duties assigned to you. from time to time. “

I pitched my skills. Hand- made sports flyers. Wrote catchy stuff. Drew funny cartoons. Talent spotted! New assignment. Start up the company newsletter. More work. More job security. Better than nothing.

Another MNC. Multi- National Corporation. Another communications job. Winning presentations. Winning campaigns. My boss got all the Smarties. Not a word about my work. Better pay. Good opportunity. Better than nothing.

Rogue boss. No hope. Left. Started communications agency. 1997. One job. Listing of local Electronics Company. Economic meltdown. Doors closed. Belly up. $7,000 revenue. Better than nothing.

God smiled again. Rehired. Same MNC. Different department. La Nina raged. Using communications skills. Made sense out of chaos. First ever structured La Nina manual. Shared globally. Made manager. Came with a technical portfolio. Zero technical know-how. Expected and faced tough challenges. Better than nothing.

Did not start life in English. Everybody. Around me. Family. Extended family. Family friends. Neighbors. Spoke Mandarin. Or another Chinese dialect. No English. Nor Engrish.

But thanks to senior aunt. Who pulled me out from a Chinese school. Registered and forced me into an English school. Her contention was that it was easier to get a job with an English Language based education. How right she was for a better part of my life. How wrong she is now. Still, got my certs. Better than nothing.

And Mr. Reutens. Gentlemanly. English teacher. Hair. Gelled. In beautiful waves. Waves like a surfer would dream about. He kept my fire burning. He made me felt like I was something. “You are masterful,” he praised after judging my short story. A praise I remember to this day. I was drunk with Hemingway and Steinbeck then. My math told me I would never make accountant. Eight upon hundred. Credit for English, distinction for Art. Better than nothing.

And then, the girls. And Lucy.

The girls. Paper bag makers. Working like synchronized swimmers. Seven blocks from where I stayed, when I was in primary school. Like my senior aunt, they inspired. My love for English. The language. The paper bag girls were poor. They were illiterates. But they loved my love for the English language. They had big hearts. Better than nothing.

They were always encouraging me along. Like Pavlov’s dog. I visited them everyday. To lap up their motivation. And better still. Gifts. Piles of dated Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post. Too small for the paper bags. Cover-less. Better than nothing.

With no television at home. I would dive. Excitedly. Into the Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post.  Poring the stories. The anecdotes. The humor. The wisdom. The illustration. Learning the styles. The Vocab. The cartoons. Norman Rockwell. Better than nothing.

All the time, falling in love. With English. With writing. All over. Again. And again.

And, then, there was the only television in the neighborhood. Black and white. Being goodie two shoes. I was allowed in. For a few hours a day. Better than nothing.

This led to my love for ‘I love Lucy.’ I felt the happiness. I thought. Life should be this happy every day. You should say what you want. In the way you want.

Although, it was hard to understand fully what she was saying. You could feel the happiness. All around. For about 30 minutes I was lost in joy. Before I go home where, the reality of poverty took over. But it was. Better than nothing.

Content Credit: Patrick Goodness

Without my senior aunt’s intervention. Mr. Reutens. The paper bag girls. And Lucy. I would be more of the grumpy Archie Bunker than Fonzie. Even then it’s. Better than nothing.

Boy, downward comparison sure feels good. Comparing downward is  summoning the gratitude that you think you don't have. You shouldn't have. When you feel like sh*t. You don't have to feel like sh*t when you don't want to. You don't have to be a Bezos or Musk. Take a walk. To where the vagrants are. Gratitude on demand. And if you think nothing is worst in human condition than nothing, think again. You could be in debt.

There is a time to feel everything is possible. There is a time to feel possible is everything. Ground yourself to the moment. Allow yourself to start somewhere. Confidently. Without the gush of gung-ho that will tire you after a few steps. Sometimes, you have to reach to those with less. So that you can feel more. More grateful. More assured. More confident. More grounded to clarity. To move forward. Appreciating better. Not how much but for how long.

Winning is not everything. How you feel after winning is.

With the help of Vicki Medvec through Roese’s book, let’s solve, what could have been a perplexing puzzle. Gold medalist. Silver medalist. Bronze medalist. Why is the silver medalist the most dissatisfied of the three?

Vicki and her team of psychologists working out of Cornell University, unraveled the cause of the silver medalist’s misery. This is the explanation from Roese’s book; “Sure enough, silver medalists were more focused on the upward possibilities (I could easily have had the gold!), whereas the bronze medalists were more focused on downward prospects (I could easily have missed getting the medal entirely).

Counterfactuals are more likely to come to mind when something falls into a different category or almost crosses a boundary. In athletics as well as in many parts of our lives, we can see categories of performance that have clear boundaries. One powerful boundary separates two types of people, winners and losers. The gold medalist is the best, and everyone else is the rest. To the silver medalist, this boundary is the most compelling. He or she is the one who came closest to that boundary and missed out. To the bronze medalist, however, this boundary is further away, and not so compelling a candidate for something that might have happened. But to the silver medalist, this boundary powerfully lures counterfactual thoughts, ensuring that they are upward. If only I had poured it on the last seconds…. If only I had kissed my lucky charm a second time…that gold medal would have been mine.”

Regrets, Counterfactuals and Gratitude
Photo: Joshua Golde on Unsplash

So, what is the moral of the research to you? Don’t go second…. go first class or third? Well, you could be very happy with a silver medal by appreciating your position, comparing it downward.

And another thing. Don't confuse regret with remorse. Regret is wishful thinking. The " I wish I had..." Remorse is good. It shows your heart is in the right place. Remorse is willful learning. " I need to do better the next time..."

Here’s the call to action. If you have benefited from this post, please send the link to as many of your friends as you can. The more the better. But if you think it’s not worth your little effort, thanks anyway. You’ve read it. It’s better than nothing.


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