Have you ever been on a trip somewhere away from home and just felt like you fit in, like you could live there? After a recent trip to Berlin, where I went through those motions, I came back to Scotland and hit my partner with exactly that question: why don’t we move to Berlin?

Turns out there are a lot of reasons we can’t or shouldn’t move there right now. Deep down, I was quite aware of them: Our life here - our careers, and friends, and family - the language barrier he’d face, and the sheer effort it takes to go and start anew somewhere else.

Deep down, I knew even before I posed the question what the answer would be, and that my little dream wasn’t going to become reality.

This wasn’t the first time that Berlin had taken up my mind, or that I dreamed of it as a new potential home where the grass will be so much greener (whether that were to be true is questionable, but I am not claiming my daydreams to be realistic).

I have, in fact, started to refer to these recurring urges as The Berlin Problem. The thing is I was actually meant to be moving there a few years back. I had emptied my room in the flat I shared with my best friend in Glasgow, sent all my belongings to my dad in Germany, cried lots of tears, and waved goodbye to Scotland – it’s just that I didn’t. I got to Germany (not even Berlin yet) to realise I hated the thought that Glasgow wouldn’t be home. So, I came back.

The dream of Berlin, therefore, 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 some sense of identity involved. Moving here from Germany, and making Scotland my home, meant that Germany was becoming less of one. Being here from my teens meant I developed a new sense of identity; not just German, but not quite Scottish either. So, when I dream of Berlin, there is also an added “who would I be if I lived there?”

I’ve always been a daydreamer. My mum dug up all my old school report cards recently and pretty much every single one of them stated that I spent too much time looking out the window. As I've aged, most of these dreams have turned from staring at the clouds, into obsessions over what if?

Turns out such thinking is quite common. In psychology, such a thought is referred to as counterfactual thinking. It refers to the capacity to shift between reality and an imagined or alternative perspective. Often, they include a preceding event (real or not) and a future consequence.

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

So, there are a lot of positives. I too have found these thoughts to be motivating. Hobbies have stemmed from there. Years ago, I was thinking what if I tried running?, something I had not done in years. I am not exactly a regular, but I still love it now and started it based on such a what-if dream. Once a what-if was me thinking back to not finishing high school, wondering what if I had? It was that thinking that got me to apply for an access course that got me into university in the end.

But sometimes, these thoughts can also be paralysing. When we play our past choices on repeat or constantly obsess over things we haven’t done and aren’t likely to do anytime soon, the spiral does start to morph into a form of self torture. It is a “the grass is always greener” way of thinking that can stop us from seeing what we have in the present. Worse even, it can stop us from moving forward with things we do have control over, as we lose sight of them over the potential other lives we could have had.

What makes these thoughts linger so strongly for me is that often they are not dreams of grandeur, or winning millions in the lottery (although I am sure we have all revelled in that thought to some extent). They are real, achievable things that we haven’t realised for one reason or another.

Potentially, our obsession with alternative lives we could live is so deep because we see it happening in front of us all the time. As a journalist, I have frequently spoken to people who have told me how they “made their dream reality”. Sometimes, it came as a result of some wake-up call, a sudden loss of work or a person, a life-changing accident, or even a close call with death. Others just took a leap of faith.

We see celebrities and big personalities do it all the time. Child actor Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, retired from acting after the movie, and ended up becoming a veterinarian. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson went into fashion design. Boxer George Foreman ended up launching a health grill business. Michael Jordan left basketball to play Minor League baseball. Nicola Sturgeon is now writing a book in her post-FM era (although she is still in politics, so I guess it isn’t a complete alternative life revamp).

If the things we visualise when our brain is going on a counterfactual thinking spree are achievable and people make some of such thoughts reality, how then can you tell the difference between the counterfactual thoughts that could be your biggest wish and those that do more harm than good?

The crux, I think, lies in reminding yourself what it is you are enjoying in your life the way it is and the things you can and can’t change rather than obsessing over things you could have done in the past, or are currently not attainable in the future.

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

So, that’s what I am trying to remind myself of. Or should I move to Berlin and take my chances?