I admit it, I read a lot of self-help books. And in my quest to help my self, I notice that most of these books pretty much take the same information, add a clever marketing gimmick and turn it upon the hungry and eager public, who proceed to devour it up even though they’ve heard it all before. I mean, how many times can you tell somebody to “get real” before they get angry?
But If Only: How To Turn Regret Into Opportunity actually succeeds in breaking some new ground, and it does so by focusing on something we all know and live with daily – regret. The author, a professor of psychology at University of Illinois, takes the negative associations of regret and “if only” thinking and shows us how we can actually use these associations for our benefit and better our lives by looking at all the “roads not taken” and the “things we left undone.”
Roese calls these thought processes “counterfactual thinking,” and the book describes how we can get unstuck from the rut of regrets by learning from our past mistakes and mishaps, and getting our lives back on track once we’ve been able to see how our regrets may have saved us from misery and despair. With plenty of actual experiences of people using counterfactual thinking, as well as examples from pop culture that show how “if only” thoughts can turn into empowering action, the author presents a workable process that anyone can master. The basic messages come down to simple things that make sense to the reader, once they understand the mind’s clever ways of thinking in comparisons (“it could have been worse” versus “it could have been better”).
The first half of the book focuses on what counterfactuals are and how they show up in our lives, often in the form of regrets over things done or things not done. The second half of the book details ways we can make counterfactuals work for us, rather than against us. “If only” thinking can actually be turned around into something positive once we see the psychology behind the thought patterns. The chapter about the use of counterfactuals in movies and books is especially fascinating, proving that we are all intrigued by the common behavioral themes of “what if,” “what might have been,” and “if only,” even when it comes to escapist entertainment.
“Regret is useful,” the author tells us throughout If Only, and he proves it with plenty of documented and researched examples. No longer must we wallow in despair over a past mistake or a road left unwalked. Now we have the tools to turn our negativity around and take fresh, new action towards our goals and dreams. It’s the difference between saying “If only” with a frown, imagining what might have been…and wondering “If only” with a smile, imagining what just may be around the corner.
It’s all a matter of perception.