In 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a patriotic poem about Paul Revere, a minor hero of the Revolutionary War. Longfellow's poem talked not about what Revere did but what would have happened had he not. The poem got Americans wondering how different history might have turned out without that heroic act -- and how the country might never have come to exist. By focusing on the nation's precarious origins, the poem bolstered nationalism at a time when it was sorely needed.
While we're usually encouraged not to indulge in "what ifs", researchers wondered whether the same phenomena might explain why we feel more strongly about things when we imagine that they might never have come to exist in the first place.
They tested this idea in the lab and determined that, by imagining a different past or writing an "alternative universe" then the one we're in, we feel that we are losing something -- that time is becoming scarce, for example -- and the bittersweet mix of happy and sad emotions can reinforce our appreciation of what we have. In other words, simply imagining a different past, actually has positive effects that can bolster our commitment to country, workplace and relationships.
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