On hot and wistful regrets

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.


By Leon Brooks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

By Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

By Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

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

Wistful regrets

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.

Hot regret

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…

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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25 Responses to On hot and wistful regrets

  1. makagutu says:

    Hey mate, hope you are keeping well. I just write no targets and all drafts exist only in my mind as sketches, they have not been written down anywhere.
    I think regret is a useless pastime. It presumes one could have acted differently than they did in a given circumstance something I don’t think is possible. In fact, I think if the circumstances were to remain unchanged one would react in the same way.
    Do I have regrets? I have thought hard about it and I can only regret those things that I didn’t enjoy. Anything else that I loved doing whether the outcome can be described as bad or good I have no regrets.

    • Hi there, Mak! Thank you very much for your comment. I think you make two important points there; asking the question if we really could have done things differently under the given circumstances makes sense. And I absolutely like it when you say you can only regret the things that you didn’t enjoy. The process might be more important than the outcome. That makes a lot of sense to me! 🙂

  2. dyssebeia says:

    One of the things I’ve often thought, while pondering Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, is that there’s something very strange about regret. If every detail must recur because every detail is constitutive of who you are, then regret is just a form of self-denial. Regret wishes for a power over the past that you don’t have. The power over the past that you do have is nicely summed up by this Emerson quote:

    “It is essential to a locomotive that it can reverse its movement, and run backward and forward with equal celerity. The builder of the mind found it not less needful that it should have retroaction, and command its past act and deed.” (Memory)

    If you find you cannot will your past action, instead of regret, go on in such a way that you are able to come to will it, alongside the rest of your life.

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia. I think Nietzsche shared the feeling when he wrote: “I have done that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Finally, my memory yields.
      Your point on eternal recurrence goes much deeper, of course. And what you say makes sense. After pondering; how do you look upon eternal recurrence, as a person ‘grappling with the whole of Nietzsche but non-believing’ (and with a great sense of humour, although I am not sure if that is helpful in this case)? I would like to know what you think. 🙂

      • dyssebeia says:

        Honestly, I ponder the eternal recurrence as more of a “believer” (at the intellectual, not instinctual, level) than anything else, so I don’t really know how to answer. I plead lack of relevant experience.

        Also, I responded to your comment on the Nietzsche/Plato thing I wrote. The theme I’m using apparently doesn’t let me “reply” proper so I realize you might not have seen that I replied.

        • As a person who is aspiring to be an intellectual believer, I cannot blame you. I just noticed that some people feel they can do away with the whole concept because it doesn’t fit with their views on quantum mechanics. To me, this would only make sense if those people could understand quantum mechanics and felt a real conflict of belief. It seems they don’t.
          Thank you for your reply, I will check it out. 🙂

  3. makagutu stole my thunder, kind of:
    Regrets, I’ve had a few
    But then again, too few to mention

  4. Very good points. I especially love this line:

    “The things we didn’t do can hardly disappoint us, so they will always be on our minds as opportunities we missed.”

    Very perceptive!

  5. violetwisp says:

    It’s an interesting subject. I don’t really get the whole regret thing because you would have to imagine parallel universes where you aren’t who you are now. I’m more likely to consider the things I would have regretted – like having a progressive, office-based career for the last 20 years that would see me materially comfortable but trapped, like most of the people I see around me. I just feel relief that I’m constantly broke but flexible. 🙂 Or, the other thing is that you can have pangs of regret in the moment but in the long run there’s always something useful that comes out of any decision, in terms of what you value in your life at any given moment – even if it’s just a sour lesson learned. There are so many endless possibilities that thinking that if one thing had been done differently, things would be better, makes no sense. I think you’ve just got to take what you’ve got in the moment and run with it. I don’t think I agree with Mak though, feeling everything is inevitable can’t help make good decisions – it’s got to be more useful to believe in choice because that affects your actions (even if they are determinable under impossible conditions).

    Don’t you just love a long, rambling comment?? 🙂

    • I love a long, rambling comment! Well, if I can understand what it’s about 😉
      In this case, I have no problem. And I can relate to being constantly broke but flexible. I think it makes you feel free in a way that no office job can. And that is definitely worth it.
      On the free will discussion, I find it a tough one. It seems weird to not believe in free will (from a philosophical standpoint) but to carry on as if we have free will when we are making decisions that are inevitable. (I think we don’t know half of what goes on in our brains.) I am thinking about blogging on that, but I am a bit hesitant to tackle a subject that I don’t know very much about.
      Anyway, thank you very much for your comment. 🙂

    • makagutu says:

      Let me ask, how would believing in choice change how you have acted? Whether there is choice or not, you will have acted. And worrying about it comes after the fact, not before you act.

      • violetwisp says:

        I think you asked me that but it didn’t come up as a reply for some reason. I think if people are given the environmental input that they have choice, they are more likely to consider and weigh up possible courses of action more carefully than if they are given the environmental input that there is no free will. I’m not sure what you mean when you say ‘worrying about it comes after the fact’ – I think a lot of people worry before they do things.

  6. holly says:

    I have been pondering this one. I think for me oftentimes regret and guilt were wrapped tightly together. I was raised under…”perfectionist standards” a 98? do you know what you did wrong? how could you have done better? a 100? did you ask if bonus points were available? 😉

    And then factor in “sin”…and all the standards….the …..great expectations…
    oh to be like HIM!………the perfect one….willing to die for my every….mistake? erm…sin…

    there was a lot of beating myself over the head when i failed to promote absolute self control…
    over the tongue, my words, my body…lustful thoughts…(eek!) , my every action….
    was i smiling? (rejoice in the lord always!)
    are you wondering if i am currently writing from a nuthouse? (you will never know :D)

    So for me, learning to live with mistakes….messing up…failures….
    learning to “own them”, admit them…even value them as just a part of living and life…
    were barriers i crossed entering sanity land.

    regret? yes i have some…I am learning better though to live with mistakes..with choices that i probably could have better made….and just embracing life by the whole…

    (twould be a lot easier if I just believed everything I did was already planned out and i had no choice in the matter…. 😉 😉 (that was an intentional jab at Noel…. heee….) )

    • Hi Holly! I would not mind if you were writing from a nuthouse…Why should I?
      Interesting thoughts on regrets. ‘Owning’ your mistakes and embracing the whole of life sounds good. I think it can be difficult but it is also rewarding.
      Perfectionist standards are silly, especially when you are dealing with children. They are self-motivated to learn and should be stimulated, not criticised. Well, that is my opinion, anyway! 🙂

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