A misleading illustration accompanies an op-ed by Erica Brown in today's New York Times called "Death: A Nice Opportunity for Regret." It shows a tombstone with the epitaph "I Wish I Hadn't." It's misleading because research shows that the correct epitaph, for most of us, would be "I Wish I Had."
Again and again, psychologists have asked study subjects: If you had your life to live over again, what would you do differently? Their answers have helped form our general understanding of what kinds of regret are the most haunting.
Regret, scholars have found, comes in two forms: regretting things you did that you wish you hadn’t done (regrets of comission), or regretting things you hadn’t done that you wish you had (regrets of omission). When researchers ask people in middle and old age about their regrets, most people talk about the second kind – something they didn’t do, but should have. Choosing not to move to France, choosing not to tell that girl you love her, choosing not to learn to sail: on our deathbeds, these are what cause us the deepest pangs of what-if. “I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth,” Henry James wrote to fellow writer Hugh Walpole when James was 70. “I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.”
It’s not surprising, when you think about it, for regrets of omission to overshadow regrets of commission. If you regret something you did, there’s always a chance to un-do it – through divorce, for instance, or with tattoo-zapping lasers – so the effects of the mistake don’t necessarily linger. Even if you can’t fix your regrettable action, you can rationalize it with the thought that yes, it was the wrong thing to do, but at least you learned a lesson from it.
In contrast, you can’t really claim to have learned a lesson from the wrong thing you didn’t do. If you regret not doing something, the story might have had any one of a number of different endings, and it’s easy to fantasize about how much better every one of those endings would have been. That’s why the boy who got away, the job you didn’t take, the place you didn’t live will always hold a special, unfalsifiable allure.
Regrets are often a function of having made a trade-off earlier in life -- the same trade-off that many twenty-somethings make between professional and personal goals. When people choose to focus on one, they tend to find themselves regretting their failure to focus on the other. “Sadly, it seemed to us that people’s regrets reflect a trade-off between educational and career pursuits on the one hand and interpersonal relationships on the other,” write psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec of Cornell in an analysis of several studies of regret. The common finding, they write, is that “those who spent time on interpersonal relationships regretted not achieving more professionally,” while “those who spent time in professional pursuits regretted not devoting enough attention to friends and family.” It’s enough to make you think that no one can ever be satisfied.
The urge to avoid late-life regret is an unacknowledged driver of decision-making in one's twenties, the thing that keeps many young people from making decisions at all. Regret-avoidance can be a reason to forestall committing to something – a job, a girlfriend, a religion, a place to live – because you’re afraid you’ll end up regretting it later. Better, to some folks, to keep all their options open than to risk the possibility that they will want to re-visit one of those options the instant it disappears.
I totally understand this way of thinking. I’ve used regret-avoidance as the touchstone for a lot of my own big life-altering decisions (when considering whether to have children, for instance, my husband and I suscribed to the “If we don’t do it now we’ll regret it later” school of irrationality). But it’s a stupid way to make decisions. Regrets are virtually impossible to avoid – no one but the most annoying or well-adjusted doesn’t regret at least a few things in a life fully lived – and we’re often wrong about which specific choices would have led to regret. If there's a moral to be learned here, I guess it would be the slogan on the Nike ad: just do it.