With the country on the verge of civil war in 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a patriotic poem about Paul Revere, a little-known Massachusetts silversmith and minor hero of the Revolutionary War. “Paul Revere’s Ride” played fast and loose with the facts of the now famous 1775 events, but the narrative had the psychological effect the author intended. It got Americans wondering how history might have turned out differently 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.
“What if” thinking is always a bit tricky. Too much focus on “what might have been” can mire us in regret and feelings of powerlessness or keep us from savoring our good fortune. But is it possible that a bit of such thinking might save us from complacency about our circumstances? Some scientists are beginning to think that imagining an alternative reality might have ironic and tonic effects. Indeed, it might be a practical tool for strengthening commitment to country, workplace and relationships.