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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Jan;98(1):106-18. doi: 10.1037/a0017905.

From what might have been to what must have been: counterfactual thinking creates meaning.

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University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1900, USA.


Four experiments explored whether 2 uniquely human characteristics-counterfactual thinking (imagining alternatives to the past) and the fundamental drive to create meaning in life-are causally related. Rather than implying a random quality to life, the authors hypothesized and found that counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. Reflecting on alternative pathways to pivotal turning points even produced greater meaning than directly reflecting on the meaning of the event itself. Fate perceptions ("it was meant to be") and benefit-finding (recognition of positive consequences) were identified as independent causal links between counterfactual thinking and the construction of meaning. Through counterfactual reflection, the upsides to reality are identified, a belief in fate emerges, and ultimately more meaning is derived from important life events.

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