Don't Regret Regret

Let's define regret.
What is the feeling of regret?
When you regret something, what do you do?
Which do you regret more, things you did do, or things you didn't?
Do you try to live a life without regrets?
Would you be happier if you didn't regret things?
Is not regretting things the same as living a life without making mistakes?

The five components of regret are denial, a sense of bewilderment, a desire to punish ourselves, perseveration, and a kind of existential wake-up-call.
Why do you suppose we wish to punish ourselves?
Where does that come from? What does that existential wake-up-call do to our sense of self, and our sense of our place in the world?

Where does Control-Z culture come from? Undo!
How do we get taught to think like this?
"We want to do everything ourselves and we want to do it right." Is this true for you?
If so, do you agree with this attitude?

What is being human, and what is being humane? What do these two ideas mean to you?
What does this have to do with regret?

What is regret?
Regret is the emotion we experience when we think that our present situation could be better or happier if we had done something different in the past. So in other words, regret requires two things.

It requires, first of all, agency -- we had to make a decision in the first place. And second of all, it requires imagination. We need to be able to imagine going back and making a different choice, and then we need to be able to kind of spool this imaginary record forward and imagine how things would be playing out in our present.

Regrets Chart (1/3 through the talk)
Top six regrets: Education, Career, Romance, Parenting, Self, Leisure, Finance is way less regretted

Five components of regret
So the first consistent component of regret is basically denial. ... the thought was, "Make it go away!" This is an unbelievably primitive emotional response. ... We're not trying to solve the problem. We're not trying to understand how the problem came about. We just want it to vanish.

The second characteristic component of regret is a sense of bewilderment. ... "How could I have done that? What was I thinking?" This real sense of alienation from the part of us that made a decision we regret. We can't identify with that part. We don't understand that part.

And we certainly don't have any empathy for that part -- which explains the third consistent component of regret, which is an intense desire to punish ourselves. ... the thing we consistently say is, "I could have kicked myself."

The fourth component here is that regret is what psychologists call perseverative. To perseverate means to focus obsessively and repeatedly on the exact same thing. Now the effect of perseveration is to basically take these first three components of regret and put them on an infinite loop. So it's not that I sat there in my bedroom that night, thinking, "Make it go away." It's that I sat there and I thought, "Make it go away. Make it go away. Make it go away. Make it go away."

There's also a fifth one. And I think of this as a kind of existential wake-up call. ... The whole point of acts of idiocy is that they leave you totally uninsured; they leave you exposed to the world and exposed to your own vulnerability and fallibility in face of, frankly, a fairly indifferent universe.

Control-Z culture
This is obviously an incredibly painful experience. And I think it's particularly painful for us now in the West in the grips of what I sometimes think of as a Control-Z culture -- Control-Z like the computer command, undo. We're incredibly used to not having to face life's hard realities, in a certain sense. We think we can throw money at the problem or throw technology at the problem -- we can undo and unfriend and unfollow. And the problem is that there are certain things that happen in life that we desperately want to change and we cannot. Sometimes instead of Control-Z, we actually have zero control. And for those of us who are control freaks and perfectionists -- and I know where of I speak -- this is really hard, because we want to do everything ourselves and we want to do it right.

Not that bad!
Some of your own regrets are also not as ugly as you think they are.

People see things as we want them to be, not as they are.
It's like we want to imagine that our minds are just these perfectly translucent windows and we just gaze out of them and describe the world as it unfolds. And we want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing. That is not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring. The miracle of your mind isn't that you can see the world as it is. It's that you can see the world as it isn't. We can remember the past, and we can think about the future, and we can imagine what it's like to be some other person in some other place. And we all do this a little differently, which is why we can all look up at the same night sky and see this and also this and also this. And yeah, it is also why we get things wrong.

Regret is being human and humane. I had prided myself on having absolutely no regrets. ... But I had always felt like, look, you know, I made the best choice I could make given who I was then, given the information I had on hand. I learned a lesson from it. It somehow got me to where I am in life right now. And okay, I wouldn't change it.

In other words, I had drunk our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret, which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past is an absolute waste of time, that we should always look forward and not backward, and that one of the noblest and best things we can do is strive to live a life free of regrets.

This idea is nicely captured by this quote: "Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done." And it seems like kind of an admirable philosophy at first -- something we might all agree to sign onto ... until I tell you who said it. Right, so this is Lady MacBeth basically telling her husband to stop being such a wuss for feeling bad about murdering people. And as it happens, Shakespeare was onto something here, as he generally was. Because the inability to experience regret is actually one of the diagnostic characteristics of sociopaths.

It's also, by the way, a characteristic of certain kinds of brain damage. So people who have damage to their orbital frontal cortex seem to be unable to feel regret in the face of even obviously very poor decisions. So if, in fact, you want to live a life free of regret, there is an option open to you. It's called a lobotomy. But if you want to be fully functional and fully human and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live, not without regret, but with it.

If we have goals and dreams, and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don't want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong. The point isn't to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.

We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn't remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.