Je ne regrette rien
I suspect when Edith Piaf crooned her famous signature line, she was probably lying. Is it really possible to live one’s life without even one regret? Sure, none of us like to admit to having stuffed up aspects of our past, and certainly no one looks forward to writhing on their deathbed bemoaning what could have been ‘if only I hadn’t ___.’ Yet regret most of us do, unless we’re sociopaths or have been whacked damagingly hard on the head.
According to journalist and author Kathryn Schulz, opining recently on this very topic, regret – essentially the emotion we experience when we reflect that today we’d be much happier if yesterday we’d done something different – is a fact of life. So rather than strive to eradicate it from our narrative, Schultz suggests we learn how to live with it.
First though, what do folk regret most in their lives? Turns out the number one ‘d’oh!’ concerns education. A significant 32% of us ruminate that we should’ve made more of our opportunities when we had them, or perhaps devoted all those years of academic study to something else altogether. Ergo the typical middle age lament, ‘My dream was to be a burlesque dancer, not an accounts payable clerk.’
Our other top regrets pertain to, in order of importance, decisions we’ve made about career, romance, parenting, our sense of self and leisure pursuits. Poor financial choices, surprisingly, account for less than 3% of our total regrets. So agonising about whether to invest in company A instead of B clearly isn’t worth it since you probably won’t give a toss down the track.
Shultz further explains that as described in all the psychological literature, regret consists of four components:
Denial. We think ‘make it go away!’
Bewilderment. We think ‘how on earth did this happen?’
Self-flagellation. We think ‘ugh, I could kick myself!’
Perseveration. We think all of the above over and over and over again.
A fifth component, that regret serves as “an existential wake up call” is the speaker’s own addition. As Schulz sees it, “the whole point of acts of idiocy is they leave you … exposed to the world and to your own vulnerability and fallibility in the face of, frankly, a fairly indifferent universe.”
This is often a shock to many of us living in what Schulz describes as a “‘control z’ culture” (‘control z’ being the computer command for ‘delete’), one in which the prevalent view of life’s slings and arrows is they can be ultimately defended against with enough money and/or the latest technology.
In fact, she argues, painful and inevitable experiences of regret are absolutely essential for personal growth. “The point isn’t to live without any regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves. 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 we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better”.