Trade-offs: Using the counterfactual to improve your mindset

Oct. 18, 2018, 2:00 a.m.

I’ve written about gratitude for this newspaper, and I stand by my claim that gratitude can radically alter your perspective on failure, setbacks and accomplishments. However, I also recognize that having a gracious mindset is not always feasible, especially in times of stress, frustration and regret. Sometimes, the rose-tinted glasses are off, and it’s hard to channel and attitude of peaceful appreciation for the circumstances of your life.

When I occasionally find myself in the anti-gratitude mood – annoyed, tired and/or spilling over with bitter sarcasm – I’ve struggled to brighten my spirits and recalibrate my mindset. I can tell myself that my life is good, but the cloud of irritation still hangs over me, and the words of gratitude feel empty. I’m hit with that all-too-familiar adolescent attitude: Yes, yes, life is beautiful, but screw everything anyway.

In times like these when gratitude is untenable, I’ve learned that the only useful countermeasure to negative thoughts and emotions is considering trade-offs. Others call this considering the counterfactual, a popular concept in philosophy. Essentially, a counterfactual is whatever would have happened if different choices had been made in the past. For example, if I hadn’t stayed up until 3 a.m. last night, I’d currently be sitting in my Econ section instead of writing this Grind article. (Purely hypothetical, of course).

The counterfactual shows us what the trade-offs were for our decisions: If I weren’t where I am now, where would I be? Would I be better off or worse off? This line of reasoning is often used to evaluate policy decisions – what would happen if we did nothing versus implemented the policy? – but it’s highly relevant to our personal lives as well. In fact, we all weigh trade-offs all the time: go to the gym or take a nap, join a new club or use that extra time to get ahead on assignments. We’re masters of thinking about future trade-offs; the entire discipline of economics is built on the assumption that we make these utility-maximizing calculations all the time.

However, we’re a bit less inclined to think about past trade-offs. What if I hadn’t taken a nap yesterday and instead went to the gym? What if I hadn’t joined this club? The further in the past an event is, the less likely we are to interrogate the counterfactual attached to it. Going far back and considering the trade-offs of events that happened months or years ago can be very helpful in framing current misfortunes.

Take, for a universal example, the fact of being here at Stanford: What if you hadn’t been accepted here? Would you be at a different school? Living in a different state or country? What would the quality of your life be like right now, and what would you have missed out on by virtue of never coming to Stanford?

Perhaps life would have been better if I didn’t come to Stanford, but I doubt it. If I hadn’t come to Stanford, I would not have met my best friend, taken classes from world-class professors, stretched my mind in ethics classes, become passionate about economics, received $5,500 dollars to do service work over the summer or fallen in love with one of the most wonderful people I know. If not for Stanford, I’d probably be at a much colder school with many less opportunities and funding sources, and I probably would not have met as many brilliant and engaged people as I’ve met here. Maybe life would be better somewhere else, but the odds are slim, and another life path might have led me to sickness, death or any other terrifying place.

When I can’t rally myself to be intrinsically grateful for the life I lead, I like to practice this trade-off exercise and remind myself that other roads could have taken me to dark places, or if nothing else, led me to grow into a shallower and less wise version of myself.

When I’m feeling negative about my life, I ask myself: Given the chance, would I take the risk and reroute my life course? The answer is always no.


Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ 

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