Regretting your Choices

The choices we make are statements to the world about who we are. When all you could do was buy Lee’s or Levi’s, the jeans you bought were not a statement to the world about who you are because there wasn’t enough variety in the jeans you bought to capture the variety of human selves. When there are 2,000 kinds of jeans, or 20,000 kinds of jeans, well, now all of a sudden it is a statement to the world about who you are because there’s so much variety out there. This is true of jeans. It’s true of drinks. It’s true of music videos. It’s true of movies. That makes even trivial decisions seem important, and when that happens, people want the best. We’ve got a bunch of studies that show that large choice sets induce people to regard the choices they make as statements about the self, and that, in turn, induces them to raise their standards.If there are 200, and you buy a pair of jeans that don’t fit you as well as you hoped, now it’s hard to avoid blaming yourself. The only way to avoid regretting a decision is not making it, so I think a lot of the reason people don’t pull the trigger is that they’re so worried that when they do pull the trigger, they’ll regret a choice they made.

Barry Schwartz quoted in Vox

Regret is overrated

Regret is an emotion, and it is also a punishment that we administer to ourselves. The fear of regret is a factor in many of the decisions that people make (‘Don’t do this, you will regret it’ is a common warning), and the actual experience of regret is familiar. The emotional state has been well described by two Dutch psychologists, who noted that regret is “accompanied by feelings that one should have known better, by a sinking feeling, by thoughts about the mistake one has made and the opportunities lost, by a tendency to kick oneself and to correct one’s mistake, and by wanting to undo the event and to get a second chance.” Intense regret is what you experience when you can most easily imagine yourself doing something other than what you did.

Decision makers know that they are prone to regret, and the anticipation of that painful emotion plays a part in many decisions.

We spend much of our day anticipating, and trying to avoid, the emotional pains we inflict on ourselves. Susceptibility regret, like susceptibility to fainting spells, is a fact of life to which one must adjust.

You can take precautions that will inoculate you against regret. Perhaps the most useful is to be explicit about the anticipation of regret. If you can remember when things go badly that you considered the possibility of regret carefully before deciding, you are likely to experience less of it. You should also know that regret and hindsight bias will come together, so anything you can do to preclude hindsight is likely to be helpful. You should not put too much weight on regret; even if you have some, it will hurt less than you now think.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Top five regrets of the dying

What would your biggest regret be if this was your last day of life? An Australian nurse who counsels the dying recorded the most common regrets she heard from people at the end of theirs lives. As the Guardian points out, there was no mention of more sex or bungee jumps. Bronnie Ware put them in a book called The Top Five regrets of the Dying.

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.