Having No Regrets Means Having Not Lived


22 Dec

Frank Sinatra had a few (albeit too few to mention). We’re talking regrets. By the dictionary, regret is defined as feeling sorry or unhappy about something you did or were unable to do. The word "regret" probably originated in the Old Norse word "grata," to weep. 

Regret presents as an emotion, a feeling, yet generating it requires heavy cognitive lifting. To feel regret, we have to conjure up some alternative scenarios ("counterfactuals," or "possible worlds," in psychology speak) in which the choice we’ve made and the outcome we got are undone and other choices and outcomes happened. We then have to make a judgment, a decision about how those possible choices and outcomes compare with the actual one. If one of them appears to us to be better, then we may experience regret. For its cognitive complexity, regret appears deeply human. You have a hard time imagining it in a zebra.


We regret most what is lost forever; those opportunities that existed in the past but no longer exist. Social regrets, particularly over romance, are the most common. Most often, our regrets are linked to specific actions, taken or not taken.

Many people believe that in life, you regret what you didn’t do more than what you did. Research on regret (not to be confused with regretful research, a separate issue), however, paints a more nuanced picture. In fact, classic work by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has shown that on the whole, we regret negative outcomes more when they are a result of action compared to inaction. This is known as the Action Effect (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). More recent research, however, has shown that the Action Effect holds mostly for the short term. In the long term, an Inaction Effect emerges, whereby we regret more what we haven’t done.


Action and inaction effects may factor differently in different types of decisions. For example, research has shown that people’s material purchases are more likely to generate regrets of action (i.e., “buyer’s remorse”) while experiential purchase decisions are more likely to produce regrets of inaction.


Regret experiences cut quite similarly across genders, yet some consistent gender differences exist. For example, women more than men report love rather than work regrets. Women are more prone to regret casual sex than men. Moreover, with casual sex, men regret inaction over action while women regret inaction and action similarly. Casual sex regrets are brought on mostly by feelings of worry, disgust, and being pressured. They’re lessened when one is the initiator, finds the partner competent, and feels sexually gratified.


People in rural areas may experience more interpersonal regret than those who grew up in large cities. This difference appears to be shaped by concerns about informal social control. In rural areas, where social commerce is managed more by informal means (word of mouth) than formal ones (resume), the "public eyes" produce heightened concerns for one's reputation, which in turn primes interpersonal regret.

A commonly heard sentiment about regret is that one should strive to end life having no regrets. This sounds good (particularly when Old Blue Eyes sings it), but on second look, the sentiment falls apart. The great writer James Baldwin explains this best (Baldwin explains best everything he explains):


Memory, especially as one grows older, can do strange and disquieting things. Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal. When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wished to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one’s final margin, one’s last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance, even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distances shall not become any greater. Chasms are necessary, but they can also, notoriously, be fatal. At this point, one is attempting nothing less than the recreation of oneself out of the rubble which has become one’s life.”


Given our complex world, and our long lives, it’s unlikely that any thoughtful person will come out at the end unscathed, unblemished in their decision making, and regret-free. Losing some games does not indicate that a team is bad, only that it is involved in serious competition. Similarly, having regrets over decisions that did not pan out does not mean that your decision-making process is bad. It means that you're involved in making serious decisions. In fact, one could argue that having no regrets is a sign of having not lived fully. Regret is a common human emotion. If you haven’t experienced it, you lack experience; if you haven’t hit that note, you haven’t played all the keys.


Regret is a common emotion because it serves a function—it may motivate action to avoid repeating the same mistake (an effect shown to exist even in young children ). Anticipating regret may also serve to move us to take, or avoid, action. Both anticipated action and inaction regrets can influence behavior. For example, anticipated regret of smoking (if it caused cancer) discourages smoking, while anticipated regret of not trying cigarettes (if it led to being shunned by friends) encourages trying cigarettes.

Many people assume that having regret is a sure sign that they’ve made a mistake, a bad choice. Yet this is often a false inference. Just as feeling afraid is not always an indication that you are in danger, so feeling regret is not always an indication you’ve made a mistake or chose badly. This is because, for one, regret often comes from realizing later what we didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, earlier. It’s unfair to judge oneself in retrospect without acknowledging that the context has changed. Things are clear in retrospect that cannot be clear prospectively, but we live and make decisions prospectively.


Another problem with assuming that regret denotes a past mistake is that in life, it is often quite difficult to know, even in retrospect, whether you have made a mistake or not. Often, initial misfortune turns to eventual fortune (and vice versa) given enough time, as exemplified by the famous "good thing, bad thing, who knows?" fable.


Moreover life—lived once and forward as it is—does not let us conduct experiments on imagined alternatives. In life, you cannot make one decision, see how it turns out, then go back in time to the decision point, make a different decision, see how that turns out, and then go back and pick the best of the two. Thus, once we pick option A, option A is all we actually know. If it turns out worse than we imagined, we may feel regret, since we can easily imagine that taking option B would have led to better consequences. But in fact, we often can’t know that. It is also likely that option B would have led us to much worse consequences. If I picked one woman to marry over another, and the marriage ended in divorce and heartbreak, I still cannot know whether I’d have fared better with woman B (or not marrying at all). Thus, my feelings of regret do not in this scenario denote failed decision-making. 

In therapy, I see many people who have regrets about actions taken and not taken. Having bought into the aforementioned fallacies that regrets necessarily denote failure and error, many chide themselves harshly and evaluate themselves negatively for it. The work of therapy thus often involves normalizing regret, using it for self-learning and growth, and accepting it as part of one’s functional inner architecture and, often, the mark of a life lived in earnest.


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