I have posted 45 articles so far. One every two days. I believe in self-discipline. So here I am, thinking about tomorrow’s blog. Will it be up to standard? Or will I want to retract it about an hour after pressing ‘Publish’? The worst of it is, I already know I am going to press the button, regardless.As you may have guessed by now: today’s blog is about regret.
what is regret?
In his article Within the margin of error, [blog since deleted; sorry] describes how you could ask people: “What matters most to you?” But you could also ask them: “If you could live your life over, what would you do differently?” He finds that nearly everyone can give an answer.
“I’d like to define a regret as an emotion that connects to realizing that a past decision could have been better and that a past outcome could have been superior to what actually happened.” [blog since deleted; sorry]
One thing I would like to mention is that this post is not about guilt, it’s not about remorse, it’s not about things you might be ashamed of. I have asked a few people about their regrets and got some surprising answers. Everyone has regrets. It doesn’t matter at all if you find regret a useful emotion or not.
“If I’m sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow?” José Saramago
So, what do we regret?
According to [blog since deleted; sorry] article, people most often have regrets about relationships, education and work. Regrets about relationships are felt more intensely.On the internet, pop-psychologists will tell you the whole idea of taking some time to ponder your regrets is definitely out of fashion: “Now, I have come to realise that regrets are a total waste of time,” one of them cheerfully writes. And he goes on to give us the usual 13 things you can do right now to avoid a lifetime of regrets.
“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Woody Allen
Many people believe that regrets about things we didn’t do are somehow worse. In quotes, we are frequently warned against them. I wonder if this is down to wistful thinking: The things we didn’t do can hardly disappoint us, so they will always be on our minds as opportunities we missed.
“When looking back, people experience most regret over the paths not taken.”
M. Zeelenberg, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2002
In recent years, social psychologists like Gilovich and Medvec found two different types of regrets: hot regret, which is the direct emotional outcome of a decision, and wistful regret. This is the less intense emotion associated with pleasantly sad fantasies of what might have been. That sounds like the perfect type of regret to have a wallow in, if you’re so inclined.
The first thing that springs to my mind are the many things I impulsively said. There is no way to unsay them, so regret is the default option. But this is not the area that research on regret concentrates on. Here, people are confronted with different scenarios and different outcomes and they are asked to grade their emotions. When it comes to hot regret, recent research shows that people feel more regret about decisions not to act that are followed by a negative outcome. If they had decided to act and the outcome is exactly the same, they feel less regret.So in this case, our gut feelings are probably true. However, refusing to take the time to think about regrets might not be a great strategy:
“Regret is an emotion that is functional in mastering skills and learning and in attaining a better grasp over decisions. It is especially salient in situations where people should have known better, and not so much when this is not the case.” Zeelenberg et al.
You will regret this!
Looking back at the writing of this article, I notice that I found it a bit of a struggle. I wish I had saved up some half-finished drafts for a rainy day like this. But then I found a quote by Kierkegaard that cheered me up no end:
“Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both.
This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life
Moi? Je ne regrette rien…