What If...

Jan 31, 2013 | Updated Apr 03, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

"Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? (A) He
cheated, (B) He's lucky, (C) He's a genius, and (D) It is written." -- Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

In the opening scene of the critically acclaimed film, a title card appears on the screen to raise the possibility that fate has intervened to guarantee that an uneducated orphan from the slums of Mumbai will defy the odds and become a game show champion. Throughout the film the possibility that Jamalʼs quest would end in failure looms large. Ultimately, the sheer improbability of his success suggests the universe conspired to provide a set of questions that he was uniquely suited to answer. In so doing, Jamal was reunited with Latika, his first and only true love, and his romantic destiny was fulfilled. Viewers are left with the sense that something so improbable could not have happened by chance alone, and the underdogʼs fate must have been written in the stars. Indeed, the filmʼs immense popularity is most likely enhanced by its universally appealing storyline: seemingly random and disconnected events are, in some unfathomable sense, intertwined by fate.

As a researcher at UC Berkeleyʼs Haas School of Business, I study how people reflect on fateful experiences to construct the story of their lives. Let me ask you, have you ever considered how your life would be different if certain pivotal experiences, or turning points, hadnʼt occurred? The scientific term for reflecting about "what might have been" is counterfactual thinking. It turns out that, rather than immobilizing us with regret, actively "what iffing" can help us to see our destiny more clearly. Even painful experiences, like loss of loved ones, can come to be appreciated for the growth and learning that they brought about by imagining how your life would be different had these events not occurred.

Reminding ourselves that life could have turned out differently helps us not only to understand why events took one turn rather than another, but also gives greater meaning to the turn that events did take. - Laura Kray

Science has made great strides in identifying the errors and biases plaguing human cognition. The mind is good at playing tricks, even to the point of seeing patterns where none exist. Yet much of life is inherently subjective. Like reactions to art and music, we spontaneously sense greatness rather than choose it through rational analysis. Even moral judgments, once likened to a deliberate, analytical process are now seen as deriving from hard-to-articulate intuitions. Likewise, we experience meaning in life as an intensely personal sense of knowing and agency that cannot be refuted by material reality. In Manʼs Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, noted, "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." To find meaning in even horrific life circumstances is to survive, and thereʼs nothing illusory about that. Weaving a coherent personal life narrative by seeing how a given event brought about benefits (i.e. "by experiencing this loss, I am now a humbler, more authentic person") lays the foundation for a more generative life, one in which we go beyond ourselves to contribute to the greater good.

Letʼs take the example of the holiday classic, Itʼs a Wonderful Life. In this film, Jimmy Stewartʼs character George Bailey is saved from ruin by an angel who guides him through the process of imagining what life would be like if George had never existed. By thinking counterfactually, George counts his blessings and experiences a more meaningful life.

Are you ready to go down the rabbit hole of possibilities with your own life? Start with a moment or episode from your past in which rapid, intense, and clear change occurred, such that your life was never the same again. Everyone has these turning points, whether initiated internally or from external forces. Got it? Now, thoughtfully consider who you would be today if the turning point incident had never occurred. Where might you be? How might your most important relationships be different? How might your beliefs, values and feelings be altered? Are there any other details about this imagined life that you can picture?

Considering how our lives might have been different helps to connect the dots among our life experiences. The contrast between reality and what might have been shines a light on the opportunities, relationships, and achievements that wouldnʼt have occurred without these key elements in our life story. Reminding ourselves that life could have turned out differently helps us not only to understand why events took one turn rather than another, but also gives greater meaning to the turn that events did take. When we see that this imagined world no longer fits our evolving life story, we accept and embrace life as it is. And when we believe our lives are as they were meant to be, we experience the gratification of being on the right track, living the good life, and, ultimately, fulfilling our purpose in life.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.