Should I stop obsessing over my “what if” dreams?

It turns out there are many reasons why we can’t, or shouldn’t, move there now. Deep down, I was acutely aware of them: our life here – our careers, our friends and family – the language barrier he would face and the sheer effort it would take to start over somewhere else.

Deep down, even before I asked the question, I knew what the answer would be and that my little dream wouldn’t come true.

It wasn’t the first time I thought of Berlin or dreamed of it as a potential new home where the grass would be so much greener (whether that would be true is debatable, but I’m not claiming to be daydreaming, to be realistic ).

In fact, I’ve begun to refer to these recurring urges as the Berlin problem. The thing is, I was actually supposed to move there a few years ago. I had emptied my room in the flat I shared with my best friend in Glasgow, sent all my things to my father in Germany, cried many tears and waved goodbye to Scotland – it was just that I hadn’t . Coming to Germany (not even Berlin yet) I realized I hated the idea that Glasgow wouldn’t be my home. So I came back.

So the dream of Berlin remained a dream. A dream that was then paired with a healthy dose of “What if?” What if I had moved? What would my life be like now? Obviously, there is also a certain sense of identity at play. Moving here from Germany and deciding to make Scotland my home meant that Germany became less and less one. For me, being here as a teenager meant developing a new sense of identity; not only German, but also not quite Scottish. So when I dream of Berlin, the question always comes up: “Who would I be if I lived there?”

I’ve always been a daydreamer. My mom recently dug up all my old school reports and almost every one said I spent too much time looking out the window. As we’ve aged, most of those dreams of staring at the clouds have turned into obsessions with what ifs.

It turns out that such thinking is widespread. In psychology, such a thought is called counterfactual thinking. It refers to the ability to shift between reality and an imaginary or alternate perspective. Often they involve a prior event (real or not) and a future consequence.

While it may seem counterproductive, there are reasons our brains are wired this way. It is said that counterfactual thinking is associated with the development of emotions such as regret and blame, which teach us to tell right from wrong. It is also a way for us to learn from past experiences and better predict outcomes. Counterfactual thinking also makes us more insightful and creative.

So there are many positive aspects. I too found these thoughts motivating. This is where hobbies came from. Years ago I thought what if I tried running? Something I hadn’t done in years. I’m not exactly a regular but I still love it and started it based on such a what-if dream. At one point I thought about not graduating from high school and wondered what if I had? It was this thought that made me apply for an entrance course that ultimately got me into university.

But sometimes these thoughts can also be paralyzing. When we keep repeating our past choices or constantly thinking about things we haven’t done and probably won’t do anytime soon, the spiral begins to turn into a form of self-torment. It’s the “grass is always greener” mindset that can keep us from seeing what we have in the present. Worse still, it can prevent us from moving forward with things we have control over as we lose sight of them in the face of the possible other lives we could have had.

What makes these thoughts resonate so strongly with me is that they’re often not dreams of greatness or winning millions in the lottery (although I’m sure we’ve all enjoyed that thought to some extent ). These are real, achievable things that for one reason or another we haven’t yet realized.

Perhaps our obsession with alternative lives that we could lead is so deep because we see it in front of us all the time. As a journalist, I have often spoken to people who have told me how they “made their dream come true”. Sometimes it was the result of a wake-up call, a sudden loss of job or person, a life-altering accident, or even a close encounter with death. Others simply took the leap of faith.

We see celebrities and big personalities doing this all the time. Child actor Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, retired from acting after the film and eventually became a veterinarian. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson turned to fashion design. Boxer George Foreman eventually started a health grill company. Michael Jordan left basketball to play minor league baseball. Nicola Sturgeon is now writing a book in her post-FM era (although she’s still in politics, so I guess it’s not a total reimagining of alternative living).

If the things we imagine when our brains go on counterfactual tours are achievable, and people make some of those thoughts a reality, how can you tell the difference between the counterfactual thoughts that might be your greatest desire and those that you that do more damage, recognize? Good?

I think the key point is to remember what you enjoy in your life the way it is and the things you can and can’t change, rather than dwelling on things you don’t could have done in the past or could not have done at present achievable in the future.

It’s a reaction I wish I could give myself credit for, but it’s one I actually developed after reading Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library (a classic example to me of how reading fiction can still teach us so much about life). Dissatisfied with her “real” life, the book’s protagonist is stuck in a world caught between life and death, the Midnight Library, where she can “try on” lives she could have lived. Ultimately, she discovers what is truly fulfilling in life and (spoiler alert) how much of it could be in the present rather than dreams.

I’m trying to remember that. Or should I move to Berlin and take my chances?

Grace Reader

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