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 mix 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 with certainty 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 out 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.
If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.