The Faulty Premise Of Regret
Before having our son, my wife and I debated for many years about whether or not we wanted to have children at all. Unlike most people (it seems) we were both ambivalent about the prospect. On the one hand, we felt having and raising a child would be a unique and wonderful experience, one we both had little previous experience to help us fully anticipate. On the other hand, we both feared the sacrifices and change in our lifestyles that we expected would be required of us. Ironically, then, my wife became pregnant only after we’d failed to conceive for more than a year and a half and had given up—I might add, with little regret—even trying.
Like most new parents before us, however, once we’d had him, we quickly fell in love. But also like most new parents before us, we quickly learned that child rearing is a decidedly mixed bag. As at least one study suggests, purposely childless couples may actually surpass parents in their levels of life enjoyment. It’s a close call. As a result of my knowing this, occasionally when my wife and I have a had a bad interaction with our son (thankfully uncommon—he’s a great kid), I confess I think about what life would have been like if we’d never had him. Though I never seriously wish we hadn’t, the last time I found myself thinking about it, I realized there exists an inherent fallacy in the reasoning that engenders regret over any road not taken.
Regret is premised on the notion that we have the ability to know, or at the very least we suspect, that had we only chosen a different path from the one we actually did our life wouldn’t have merely turned out differently, but better. We idealize the road not taken, imagining only the good things that would have resulted from our taking it, conveniently leaving out the bad that accompanies almost every choice, if not the bad that occurs simply as a result of remaining alive while time passes. Daniel Gilbert, in his oft-quoted book Stumbling on Happiness, provides good evidence that not only do our memories inaccurately rewrite experiences into extremes depending on our retrospective judgment of them (“bad” ones becoming wholly bad and “good” ones wholly good), but also that our ability to forecast how much we’ll enjoy an experience is quite dismal. Though I disagree that it’s equally poor in all people as he argues—I’ve observed that, as with any skill, some are better at it than others—it remains hard to imagine what can’t be known: the full and far-reaching consequences of any choice not made.
And yet so many of us think we can do just that. In fact, many of us suffer greatly based on our belief that if we’d only zigged instead of zagged at a crucial moment in our past, our present would be so much better. But even if today you find yourself experiencing horrible suffering as a result of a decision you once made, any confidence you feel that some other choice would have brought you to a present filled with far less is wholly unjustified. Had you made that other choice, how could you really know that, as a result of several subsequent choices and events, you wouldn’t be suffering even more? You may pine for the life you think you’ve left unlived, but that life not only never existed, it almost certainly wouldn’t have existed the way you imagine it. Think about your life today: does it exist now as you once predicted it would?
I’m not arguing that the choices we make don’t matter—just that they don’t matter quite as much as we think. How happy we are isn’t so much a function of how our lives exist on the outside as it is how we approach them on the inside. Over the (hopefully) long span of our lives, the ups and downs of external circumstances tend to regress toward a mean (some lives clearly enjoy a higher level of happiness than others, no doubt—the millionaire’s generally being higher than, say, the slave’s—but shifting that set point over time is a topic for another post). Rather than allow ourselves to wallow in suffering over what might have been, we should strive to remind ourselves the grass only ever seems greener, and that there’s always much to enjoy (and over which to suffer) in any and every circumstance. Our focus shouldn’t be on what might have been because in general and over time it’s unlikely to have been any better or worse than what is. Instead, our focus should be on making what we have now the best it can be. In short, regret is a poison that prevents you from enjoying the choices you did make. Spit it out before it’s too late.
Next Week: Of Mirror Neurons And Social Networks
Good post. “I should have” is a phase I don’t often use because it is a waste of my energy. Once an a action is taken there is no undoing. My energy is put into improving how I relate to the world around me.
I really like this post and think it has meaning for lots of people, me included. One nit that I’d mention, though, is that you pitch the misguided thoughts as if they depend on certainty. So regret is said to depend on knowing *with certainty* that another path would have been better. I don’t think that’s really true. There are plenty of things I regret where I don’t know for sure things would have worked out better, but it seems likely (or even highly likely) they would have.
We all do the best we can with the conditions that we confront, even if the best we can seems lazy or half-hearted or incomplete to someone else. The person who makes those decisions is the person who we were at that time, without any benefit of retrospective review. So many factors are involved in choice, including our history, others’ history, our culture, our emotional state at that time, our physical state at the time, and on and on. In that sense, so much of what we decide is already decided. We live with that and that becomes a teaching. Where we cannot learn from it, we repeat and repeat until we do. Regret is memory plus sadness. Otherwise, it’s memory plus satisfaction. Is there such a thing as a neutral memory?
Never would I have wished for a daughter with congenital heart disease and many other problems. However, she was given to me. It was one of the most enriching experiences in my life.
I cannot ever imagine regretting knowing my daughter Ruqiya. Though dealing with her pain and the daily prospect of her death was very painful, I would never be the person I am today without her in my life.
Regret? Never. Loving her through all of it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. A great and loving gift from my Lord that I would never have asked for—not in a million years.
There are so many, many things for which to be grateful, and you are correct about regret. It is a waste of time and just another way to beat ourselves for not being all-knowing or flawless. Humans make choices and the outcomes are not always under our control. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say the outcomes are rarely under our control.
I would argue one point about happiness without children. Yesterday when my daughter and two little grandchildren were visiting I would guarantee nobody else anywhere was as happy as I was. 🙂
It would seem to me you have forgotten some basic Buddhist concepts of the past being gone and the future not to be worried about. If there is something to regret in life it would seem to me to be only moral decisions. Did I lie, steal something, do a moral harm to someone? I regret making that bad decision then but it is gone and now I try to be moral or good in all my decisions.
I have made a lot of decisions in my life that were stupid or didn’t work out but they were moral or honest and I actually don’t regret them and learned from them. Maybe, sometimes. I have thought about your subject before and even the decisions that were not to bright I laugh about. I really wouldn’t change much in my life except the moral decisions.
Thanks, Alex, seems like this was written for me!
Its hard to do but it is important to stop agonizing once something is done…whatever the consequences. If nothing, it has happened for us to learn lessons.
I was re-reading Dale Carnegie few days ago (cheesy yes, but does have some nuggets!), and one of the chapters had the admonition “Don’t try to saw sawdust.” I think it makes a lot of sense. Now, I just need to apply it!
Thanks again for the perspective.
I have two children, now adults. The first was unplanned, and had it been legal I would have aborted. I fell absolutely in love with her. The second child took a while to conceive. Having one, we wanted two, and so he came, three years after his sister, again much loved.
The marriage (not made in heaven) broke up, although their father stayed in his children’s lives.
Now our adult children have the responsibility of looking after their father, now diagnosed as bipolar and periodically difficult. I have scarce contact with him, but I’m glad he has two good children to care for him.
A great topic, Alex! Reminds me of something I read somewhere that “no single decision has the potential to make or break your life.” Life is a sequence of choices and decisions we make and not a single one of them can overrule the rest.
We are a couple who consciously decided to avoid having children and we have wondered about what we’re missing through seeing our peers caught up in the joys and pitfalls of parenthood. We have freedoms and stability and quiet that I’m so grateful for. Reading your post I take some extra comfort in knowing that the road not taken isn’t cause for regret.
I agree, there a lot of the most precious things come at the most difficult times.
Also, the longer I live, the more I am aware how short life is. I don’t want to regret wasting time on regrets!!
Good post. 🙂
Hi Alex, I am a regular reader of your posts. I am from India, also a Buddhist. I find your posts incredibly knowledgeable and very well articulated. You put in so much thought into every post but what makes them special is that you put in so much of your heart into them. I absolutely loved this post. And I have a question for you which is not really relevant to this post, but I gotta ask. As a practicing member I have perfected, or rather have endeavored to perfect, the art of disagreeing without disrespect. But sometimes I come across people who are just too tenaciously rude. I know we should make a point without making an enemy, but this person is just going on misunderstanding my post, taking everything I am saying out of context, calling me patronizing and condescending for no apparent reason. I have been responding with politeness, corroborating my views with facts instead of being acerbic, only to receive more snide remarks from him. I am mad. How do you deal with such readers?
Very timely post, between last week’s Comfort and this week’s Regret, I am trying to open up to a new way of viewing myself in this world. I am finding this to be a struggle and a challenge. How I can live my best life with whatever time is left and let go of how I have looked at my life and the decisions made that have landed me where I am. Life is short and in everything I didn’t see myself where I now am. Almost sounds crazy but I fear at times I am losing my grip on reality. So one foot in front of the other, slow growing/going.
Thanks so much for the post. Have a great week!
Your son is blessed to have a father and a mother, I am sure, with the wisdom and compassion you demonstrate.
That greatly helped. Thank you 🙂
There have been several occasions wherein I had felt taking that course of action in preference to this would be better, but then did otherwise in deference to someone else’s advice. I do not say that I do not regret having done so. This regret has made me to depend more and more on my judgment. Now even if something doesn’t turn out right I do no feel much of a pinch.
I agree that in most cases it is illusory to think that if only we took the other path at the fork we would have been happier, because life is full of imponderables and surprises.
As far as possible don’t harp too much on what would have been. At every stage try to make the most of the endowments you are fortunate to have. All the riches in the world do not bestow on you immortality. So better be happy now and try to be so in future with honest hard work. Que sera sera.
Being of a somewhat dramatic bent, I have taken self-indulgent solace over the years in the lyrics of the song from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, The Road I Didn’t Take (https://www.songlyrics.com/follies/the-road-you-didn-t-take-lyrics/). Last year, I heard Oprah Winfrey say “forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed,” in the context of overcoming sexual abuse. Having spent years, pining over “the Ben I’ll never be,” I have adopted a paraphrase of Oprah’s saying. Letting go of regret is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed.
I am just concluding a non-working year after the end of a stressful and exhausting corporate job. My time off was the most wonderful year of my life and a time of great personal growth. And as I look toward starting a new job, I am already berating myself for all the things I DIDN’T do while I had all of this time off. Why didn’t I go to India for a month? Why are those photos still in a shoe box? Why haven’t I taken more classes at the Apple store? How can I still not be doing my banking on-line? Some days, the greatest luxury was not feeling panicked about what had to be done, crossed off the list, etc. But even with such a wonderful year behind me, I am already kicking myself for not doing more—despite the fact that LESS is probably just what the doctor ordered. Regret rears its ugly head even when we have chosen a great path to take.
In some ways I agree with you. I sometimes (usually during periods of financial stress) regret that I decided to divorce my ex-husband. He was consistently unfaithful and it was impossible to communicate with him because he said, if I asked him to talk, that he didn’t have to. I asked him to stop working nights to help me with our increasingly restless teenage sons; they were getting too much to handle on my own. He refused. I guess it’s hard to stay with someone when consistently you get the message that you and your happiness are unimportant. How we got to this point was no doubt partly my fault. I pushed him too hard to talk and I was very immature at the time. However, his unfaithfulness was entirely his own doing and it was not a mistake (as he told me the first time)—it was a plan because it didn’t just happen once. He and I both cried the first time over how our lives got twisted up. Actually we both were unfaithful incredibly at the same time. It all came pouring out one night and we both swore we really loved each other and things would change. However he lied, it was not as I said just one mistake; it was a pattern that started almost immediately and continued throughout our 17 years of marriage. You can feel lonely sitting in a room full of people or in your own home with the man you thought you’d spend your life with and you realize you might as well be in another country.
But as I said, I was very immature and I confess I was not well prepared for life on my own. I married young and as the proverbial saying goes, out of the frying pan into the fire. My relationship with my parents was very unsatisfactory, my mother was domineering and controlling and actually emotionally and physically abusive although I did not recognize it at the time. I think so many girls got married in order to escape bad parenting or a bad home life. So I left this domineering and emotionally cold and distant woman who consistently failed to be there for me ever. Probably the most glaring example (so you know I’m not talking about how she never bought me the right dresses to wear) was when I was raped by 5 guys (I don’t want to say men because that dishonors manhood) when I was 15. My mother found the evidence, my filthy clothes, and never missed a beat. She was so angry with me. Apparently she thought (and she never asked what happened) that it was something I’d taken up on my own. My clothes were covered with evidence she construed to be my wanton behavior engaging with multiple partners. I have never been into multiple things even now but I certainly wasn’t then. I don’t even remember what I did once I got home, I must have been in a fog. Surely I cleaned myself for that is what they say everyone does but I do not remember doing it. I do not remember getting into bed (it was late at night after an outdoor dance at a park) all I remember is seeing my mother holding up my new shorts that were ruined, holding them and glaring at me and telling me I must be determined to bring some disease home to the entire family. She dragged me, humiliated, to the same doctor who had delivered me for my first ever gyno exam and sat in the waiting room to make sure I went perhaps. But she never asked me and I never told her. It wasn’t the first time in my life that I felt she not only didn’t care about me but that whatever it was that happened it must have been my doing. At the most crucial times of my life she was busy acting the injured party. And she wondered why I was aloof? I’m not an aloof kind of person, in fact, as you can see (and I apologize) I probably reveal too much. I don’t know why, maybe from years of no one ever asking me what I did or how I felt, who knows. But I’m pretty much an open book whether by plan or not. When my marriage finally fell apart my mother told me it was my own doing for not “taking care” of him. She was the aloof one and a traitor in my mind. It wasn’t me she consoled; it was my soon to be ex-husband who within a month would have someone “new” to take my place. Both my mother and my ex were domineering people who scared me. I was scared of their power over me and used to have dreams about them taking me away somewhere to be locked up away from every thing I knew.
Anyway, like I said, sometimes I think maybe I should have stayed because whatever else went on I didn’t have to worry about not having money to make it through the month when I was with him. But then I don’t think I would have ever grown up either. I think I would have remained a childish, insecure little girl. I have grown up since then but I’m still afraid a lot. Physical aggression scares the hell out of me and if someone ever should attack me I’d crumple like one of those little toys that collapses when you push on the bottom. But I’ve made it through a lot on my own. Not probably with as much grace as someone else might have but I did make it. But I think I live my life without plan. Sometimes I feel like a ball in a pinball machine bouncing wherever the flippers send me until I bounce into another. But I have grandchildren now and a good relationship with my sons.
So in that regard I probably agree with you. I learned to recognize the patterns of my mother being repeated in me. How she could play the martyr so well, playing the wounded one and leaving me feeling so guilty when I had a mind of my own. That probably goes a long way toward explaining her preference for my ex when we divorced. That and the fact that she’d always shown a preference and a need for men in her life. But because I left I saw that I could do that same hurt and painful thing to my children. And once I recognized it I realized what a cruel thing it was to do and made a change in myself for the better and vowed not to be like her and mostly I think I’ve been true to that. I talk to my children, I’m there for them, they will never suffer alone as long as I’m alive, they will never face adversity without me there to support them emotionally. I think even if I felt what they did was wrong, I’d still be there. Because just because I don’t like someTHING they do doesn’t mean I don’t love them with all my heart.
So, yeah, in that way I agree with you. However there’s this other thing that I regret and on that I disagree. Because had I made a different choice, my little Heidi would not have disappeared from us and never seen again and I wouldn’t be wondering where she was or what happened or despising myself for having put her in harm’s way. Because if I had chosen to keep her with me she would have lived with me however long she had because she wasn’t one to wander. She used to ride in the basket of my bicycle. I don’t think she really liked it so much especially going down a hill fast and bumpy. But she did it because she wanted to be a part of me, a part of the family. And because I left her she’s gone and I will never know. I don’t know if I want to know everything but then not knowing drives me crazy too.
So you are right and you are wrong, Alex. In my opinion for whatever that counts, I say you are right and you are wrong. Regret is not always because of a misconceived idea that things would be better. I think my life would have gone much the same way as far as she was concerned but I wouldn’t have had this horrible dark thing that never leaves and there wouldn’t be this door that refuses to close.
I’m sorry if I say too much and make anybody uncomfortable, I don’t mean to. Maybe I’m hoping for some absolution, the kind I used to go to confession for when I still believed I had to adhere to the Catholic faith I was raised with. But there never is absolution. There wasn’t then and there isn’t now and I still talk too much.
Thank you all for listening and for being there.
Why do you say a long life is better? “…(hopefully) long span of our lives…”
To me this sounds like an extension of our society’s chant “more, bigger, faster is better.”
Anne Tyler: It’s really bothering me—what happened to Heidi?
Heidi, who was about 7 years old at the time and WHO NEVER WANDERED from the yard was just gone one day, no explanation.
The only person who was home with her was the same person who moved in and took over after I left.
This “woman” didn’t like anything that was in my house being in hers. I sent some stuff home with my kids and she said she didn’t want it in her house.
My sons contact lenses several times just disappeared from where he put them.
She burned up all the photos my kids had of us together.
She is from a family in town who has a reputation, they are always in the newspaper for robbing somebody, getting in a fight, always something.
I don’t know what my ex was thinking of getting involved with someone like that. She’s gone now, he’s on number 4, but she turned the daughter she and my ex had against her father; after he put her through college she dumped him.
Heidi, my sweet girl, spent that weekend with me. She didn’t want Heidi there after she was with me and she didn’t want me coming around anywhere near her world.
My son said he got so mad at her once he wanted to punch her (he was almost 18 and in school) but she held the 4 month old baby up to shield herself. My kids were not raised to live like that. My ex bribed them to stay with him and he had the house so they could stay at their school. He gave them money for a car.
I have tried dealing with this and talked to a counselor but I can’t get past it. But she believes me (some people say I’m being melodramatic but they don’t know the situation). My counselor says I need to realize (and I do) she could have hurt my kids. Thank God she did not but she could have. There was a woman about ten years ago here in town who got her son and his friend to kill her stepson. They made him dig his own grave. She wanted him gone. There are sick people with out conscience and without morality.
I know, she either dumped her out in the country somewhere or had one of her thug family members kill her. And I can’t bear the thought of not knowing and I can’t stop thinking and I can’t stop feeling whatever it was she went through all alone.
Neither Heidi nor my kids deserved any of what happened to them. I just feel like even though I know she’s gone that somehow her spirit looks for me still to come and save her. I’ve got several big regrets in my life but this is the one I can’t get past.
I will always love Heidi. I want to be able to look at her pictures without crying so I can remember her the good times. She deserves to be not forgotten. So if it hurts me to look at her picture; it’s no excuse for me to not see them or to try to forget her. I just hope if there is a heaven that me and her both get there and I can hold her again. I used to carry her around all the time, she was my best girlfriend from the very start.
Alex, I appreciate the suggestions from both of you. But I am doing something. Right now I am spending most of my day trying to keep our traitor senators from overturning a bill we got put in place to relieve the shameful conditions in Missouri puppy mills. These dogs, many of them, are bred over and over and then disposed of when they can’t breed any more. They live their lives stacked in cages one on top of the other and stuff from the cages above them fall into their cages. Some of them have never been held and never leave their cages. They produce precious little sweet looking babies that they tie a little ribbon around and sell on the internet sometimes for thousands of dollars or to pet stores that sell them. They make them barkless by shoving things down their throat so they don’t make so much noise. They have more dogs, maybe a hundred or more, than they can possibly care for. One man told a group I work with that when a dog gets old and can’t have any more puppies, it’s a commodity that’s no good anymore and he takes them into his yard and shoots them. I’ve adopted dogs that came from these places and lost one because it was sick with distemper when I got it but I tried to help her. I do try to make a difference. I don’t know how people do it, I admire the hell out of them, but I can’t go to those places like some people do. They go there and see these dogs and puppies but sometimes they can’t help them because there’s no laws to help them and we tried to change that and the people voted for the law and it passed and now it’s in the senate and biased senators who are in the Cattleman’s club and own cattle who are opposed to this law, clearly biased, are depriving us of our vote; the only person who can stop this now is the Governor. I write things across the net in chat rooms so people know the truth because they are lied to. They are told this is about all animals, that we want everyone to be a vegetarian. But it clearly says dogs and no other animal. But the senator is on TV all the time and he says that the voters just don’t understand.
Our law says they can’t have more than 50 for one thing; they say they have to have more. We say they have to see and be examined once a year by a veterinarian; their law to replace ours say no, says no they don’t need to leave their cages, that their water is fine even though lots of times they don’t have any or else it’s got maggots or other stuff in it. I get pictures sent to me as part of the fliers in this group but I can’t look because I just barely keep it together now.
I admire people on the front line; its a hard job because they have to focus on the ones they can help and not think about the others. I do try to make a difference. This situation is looking bad.
I write a lot, stories and stuff. I write things in ways I hope will help people to see the truth and not believe the lies.
I am so angry that our vote can be discarded by these senators just saying that we the voters don’t understand and that we have to trust him. I don’t trust him at all because he lies and he is taking all our hard work just to get enough signatures to put it out for vote and we did and it passed and now he’s destroying it.
I do my work from home. I can write things so people understand. I also work for pro-life issues. I care a lot about babies and puppies and dogs who have no voice and if we don’t speak for them no one ever knows. They take these puppies away from the mothers and sell them and it starts all over again. Southern Missouri is very rural, lots of places for these people to hide their “businesses.” Don’t buy any puppies off the Internet;, you see they offer to “meet you” so you don’t know the kind of conditions they come from. I know people who have bought these dogs only to have to have them euthanized or spend thousands on veterinarian bills.
Missouri is tops in supplying puppy mills; these people make their living off the misery these dogs live in. If they ever get free of their cages, I’ve seen them, some of them just cower and hide and are scared of people and it takes a long time for them to trust again. I saw a bunch of pictures just tonight of ones that are set to die in the morning if they ain’t gone. And they are nice looking dogs that should be loved but instead they live in hell.
You can think whatever you want about me because as much as I try I still screwed up. But I don’t deserve any sympathy and I’m not asking for any, but sometimes I just have to say what’s inside and I’m sorry coz I know its not fair and I really need to deal with this on my own and I apologize for upsetting anyone. I’m sorry because I know you all are here to feel better and I’m not helping anybody just talking about my thing. So I know it’s not fair and I won’t keep doing it. You have some very good things to help people and you obviously do help people. It’s wrong of me to be a negative thing. I know.
If anybody wants to see my latest message trying to make sense out of the nonsensical about people who really don’t give a damn, you can catch it here:
because I do care about some things other than my own selfish needs.
Thank you for your informative post in the New York Times on the topic of regret with this link to your blog. Last semester, I took an elective course on the topic of Positive Psychology and Authentic Happiness and found it enlightening. I look forward to reading your blog.
[…] live longer than their usefulness. These things once consumed your active attention, perhaps helped or shaped you and drained your energy. However, in the rearview of life, these might appear and inconsequential. Let go of them. Hanging […]
This was helpful to read. I am going through a thought process where I intensely want to roll the clock back three months and make a different decision. I know that doing this just makes my unhappiness worse, but I seem to keep coming back to this regret. It’s like an itch that wants to be scratched, but the itching never goes away. Hoping for a change of attitude as time passes.
Thank you for the reminder to “spit out that poison.” Life is best lived fully and in the moment. Learning from our mistakes but ever forward!
[…] discovered, a good defense against regret (which I wrote about in detail in a previous post, The Faulty Premise Of Regret)—for things left undone simply become opportunities sacrificed for other opportunities more in […]
Humanity coexists within its pain. There is a Buddhist teaching about breathing in and breathing out. When the mind trips us up, let go, experience whatever arises and allow the waves of existence with the space offered to reveal the compassion, trying to embrace all. You will be helped; it is not always up to us.
Thank you for this. It’s true, I can’t be sure if another path not taken due to my action would have been a better path. Most probably, it would have been better in some ways and worse in other ways. No point in regret and thinking in such a way to make myself suffer (i.e., idealizing path not taken, lamenting my current condition) when another way of thinking about it makes me suffer less (i.e., path not taken not necessarily better, try to see what’s good about my current condition). Thank you, Alex.