Why Regrets are Silly

Regrets are pointless. People sometimes say or think, “I wish I had that situation to do over again. I’d do it differently.”

What do you regret about the situation? That you made a mistake? If you made a mistake, then there was an error in your reasoning or knowledge that you have since corrected. Otherwise, how would you know it’s a mistake? To regret making an error in reasoning or lacking knowledge is equivalent to expecting yourself to be infallible. Expecting infallibility — defined as the impossibility of error — is irrational. That’s why it’s pointless to regret.

Probably more often, people regret something that made sense at the time, and was even valuable at the time — but from their present vantage point, they would not do.

A big example of this is a marriage or a relationship. “I wish I hadn’t been in that marriage.”

OK, what was bad about the marriage? “Well, it wasn’t bad at the time. We were very much in love and had years of good times. But it didn’t last.”

Why regret what was good or right for the time? If the spouse had died, but the marriage was fabulous, you wouldn’t conclude, “We had 20 fantastic years but she died prematurely. I wish we had never met.” It would be plainly irrational to say this. But it’s just as irrational to say, “We had 20 fantastic years but eventually one (or both) of us changed as people, and our needs changed. So I wish we had never met.”

This is another example of how irrational people are about marriage. Either it has to last forever, or it’s worthless. That’s ridiculous. Something that’s worthwhile enough to last forever, and pleases the two people for decades on end, is surely a special and wonderful thing. But it doesn’t follow that any other relationship that falls short of this time span is automatically bad.

People regret lesser things too. “I spent thousands of dollars on expensive vacations ten years ago. I wish I had that money back now.” OK, but could you afford the vacations at the time? “Yes.” Did you enjoy them? “Thoroughly.”

So why were they wrong, then? Why are they worthy of regret?

This is the error people often make, or that their emotions (rarely challenged or brought into consciousness) are making for them. They project onto ten or twenty years ago their current needs, wants, wishes or desires. Because what they wanted ten or twenty years ago isn’t the same thing they want or need today, they automatically assume everything they did back then was wrong.

Can’t something be right for its time?

None of this is a denial of the fact that people make mistakes. It’s possible to conclude, “What I did or thought back then was stupid. It was wrong, and this is why. This was my error in reasoning, or my denial, or my evasion.” By all means, call a spade a spade.

But don’t automatically assume something was an error or an evasion just because you wouldn’t do it now. And if something was a mistake or an error, even a big one, then use that knowledge in the present. Yesterday’s errors are today’s power. You’re never doomed to make the same mistake over and over again. You’re always free to think, no matter what circumstance you have created or find yourself in. If nothing else, there’s always your mind.

People who are committed to growth and learning throughout their lives do better with this issue. There’s a term in psychology called the “self-actualizing” personality. The self-actualizing person operates on the premise that life is a continuous process of growth, knowledge, achievement and new understanding. Once certain things are learned or affirmed as true — as general principles — they stay that way. Wisdom is possible, as is objective knowledge. But wisdom and knowledge can improve and expand with age. There will probably always be errors requiring correction along the way.

To a self-actualizing person, none of this is depressing or burdensome. So many people who get depressed or otherwise down and out are dragged down by their own assumptions. They feel as if they shouldn’t make mistakes, or they cannot recover from whatever goes wrong. They feel as if life should somehow get to a kind of effortless existence, where even thought is no longer required. These are the people who yearn for heaven, or nirvana, or utopia, in all its various forms.

But if your attitude is that life is full of continuous growth and challenges, then you don’t have this problem. You don’t need utopia. While you don’t always welcome or like what develops, you embrace it as part of what is, and you take it from there. Living in the real world is your challenge, your joy, the thing for you to master … not the thing to be escaped.