A life with no regrets is a life well lived, says the common wisdom. Regret makes us feel unpleasant about how stupid and immature we were, how we didn’t have our priorities straight and how were not able to see what’s right in front of us. Regret is icky and aversive, and what do we do with icky and aversive things? Usually, we avoid them. Hence, avoiding regret follows logically and thus we should do it without question. Hooray?
No. Not hooray. Not hooray at all.
Imagine yourself 10 years ago. It is likely that you were a completely different person from now: different values, different friends and (hopefully) a different haircut. You are a completely new human being because of all the various misadventures that happened to you over those crazy, crazy 10 years. Unavoidably and undoubtedly, some of those misadventures involve regret. Maybe it‘s how you didn‘t have the (metaphorical) balls to ask your crush out, or avoided cooking at home for 17 months straight for the sake of a takeaway fried chicken (hey, I ain‘t judgin’). As a consequence, you are now fat, single and miserable. Wait a second… What’s that peculiar feeling in your belly? No, it’s not diabetes – it’s regret (or for the unfortunate minority it’s probably both). However, now that you have this ickiness stuck with you, why not do something about it to prevent it from emerging again? Regret is not pleasant at all, but it’s a great teacher – it lets you know what you did wrong and provides you with the opportunity to not do that action in the future. It’s like a trip to IKEA – you might have spent 300 euros on this glorious fake avocado, but at least for the next 20 years you’ll watch your finances with much more caution. Win some, lose some.
It is known that the first step to solving a problem is becoming aware of its existence in the first place. That is exactly what regret does – it shows you what your problem is, man. Only after you notice that you push away people you love can start changing for the better. Only after noticing that you’re gambling all your money away can you truly start changing your behaviour. Regret is the built-in mechanism that goes off when something in your life goes wrong. Furthermore, for quite a few people, it takes for a truly horrific event to occur to induce a life-long change in their nature. Maybe they drink away their job, maybe their spouse leaves them due to a lack of intimacy, maybe they drop out of university because of their chronic procrastination. Maybe they get lung cancer. No matter the details, what this sort of person needs to genuinely change is to reach the bottom, and what is there lying beside them in this dark, dark a place? It’s regret, and its good pal “if I keep this up I will destroy my life completely” right next to it. As these two are not the most pleasant company to hang out with, it’s up to us to remember what we did, and not do it again.
Regret might be painful, but it’s one of the best lessons one can receive about himself. Michael from the YouTube channel VSauce once told a great story about regret: at some point of our lives we all go through something which leaves us scarred. That scar is like a carving in a tree – it will stay where it is no matter whether you ignore it, paint over it or try to hide it. It might become less visible, but will remain where it is regardless. The one thing a tree can do about this scar, is grow. The scar will not shrink in size, but in comparison to you it will get smaller. That’s exactly what regret does: it pushes you towards growth, and even though it has a lot of appalling side effects, in the end, it makes you a better person than you were before… but only if you let it.