Another reason regrets are dumb

You’ve doubtless heard the maxim that “You don’t regret the things you do. You regret the things you don’t do.” I’ve never understood why so few are bothered by the major logical flaw here: You can’t do two things at once. Choose X? You can’t choose Y. Regardless of which path you choose, there’s something else you won’t be doing.

I think about this a lot when I’m questioning past choices or starting to second-guess decisions made months or years ago. More and more, I’m convinced that regrets aren’t signs of bad decision-making but rather reflections of temperament and cognitive style. Regrets don’t reflect objective truth. They’re simply interpretations.

A couple years back, I dipped a toe into the critical maelstrom surrounding the book Marry Him, writer Lori Gottlieb’s exhortation to younger women to marry that nice if slightly dull boyfriend instead of holding out for true love and risk ending up (like Gottlieb—and me) single at midlife.

Along the spectrum of Marry Him commentaries—which ranged from the virulently pro to the virulently anti—the review I wrote for the Chicago Tribune fell somewhere in the middle. While I certainly got where Gottlieb was coming from, I couldn’t buy her solution—and not because of its dubious politics but because I couldn’t see it working. (Indeed, with some dark humor, I couldn’t stop picturing a sea of future middle-aged women, cursing that stupid book that convinced them to marry the guy they’re divorcing.)

The fact is, life is risky. There are no guarantees, no fail-proof roadmaps to a fairy tale ending. The answer isn’t to blame ourselves or to look for ways to game the human condition but rather to do the best we can and accept our essential limitations.

I recently interviewed psychology professor Kristin Neff, a leading expert on self-compassion and author of a book by that name, and was struck by what she had to say on this topic: “We love to have an illusion of control because it makes us feel safe. In an ironic way, I think what happens when we criticize ourselves is that we’re saying ‘Oh, I should have had control.  If it was something I did, then I did have control, I just made the wrong move.’ When in fact, the reality is that I didn’t have a lot of control. I did my best, but I couldn’t make things turn out the way I wanted them to. In a weird way, sometimes it’s less scary to people to blame themselves than it is to admit that we human beings often don’t have a lot of say over our lives. It’s hard being human!”

My thoughts exactly.

The notion that our biggest regrets tend to stem from things we failed to do bears a striking resemblance to the maxim that “the grass is always greener on the other side”—the salient difference being that the two are invoked to make opposite points. Here again, I’m reminded of the 28 conflicting legal rules famously set forth in a 1950 law review piece. When judges go about inter­pret­ing laws, there are “cor­rect, unchal­lenge­able rules of ‘how to read’ which lead in hap­pily vari­ant direc­tions,” the author dryly concluded.

For her part, along with urging readers to make haste and marry, Gottlieb set out to do the same herself, albeit belatedly.  Her primary strategy: Be less picky. She expounds on academic research that places people in two relevant groups: “maximizers,” who demand the very best, and “satisficers,” who do fine with good enough. As Gottlieb sees it, the solution is clear. She just needs to switch teams.

It wasn’t until after my review was published that this thought occurred to me: Gottlieb has a beautiful child, a successful writing career. Wouldn’t a true satisficer start by focusing there?

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “Another reason regrets are dumb

  1. While I did not read Gottlieb’s book, I did read two of her articles in The Atlantic. One was essentially a short verison of the book. The other, written some years earlier (and about which I wrote a letter to the editor), was about how she’d decided to have a child by a sperm doner rather than doing it “the old fashioned way”, that is, marrying someone. The 180 degree turn in her public thinking really left me feeling that she needs to get her sh*t together before she starts sounding off in feature articles for major publications. Of course, I’m a guy, so maybe I’m seeing this differently.

    Also, while I don’t disagree with Neff, I’ve been recently considering the idea of not control over one’s life but rather “self-determination,” the idea that we should be free to make the decisions (and take the ensuing risks) about our own lives. It is when people feel “stuck” — in a marriage, in a job, in a family situation, in a social or ethnic status, etc. — that the hopelessness sets in. I think a good part of self-acceptance is that you were not prevented by circumstances from making the choices that are right for you at that time.

    Another excellent post.

    • As always, many thanks for thoughtful comments, Matthew! Control is actually an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I’ve read about research that suggests that feeling in control of our lives/choices is key to life satisfaction, but I’m curious about the times when we don’t have as much control as we’d like (often the case in Plan B Nation, though certainly not only here.) How do we go about maximizing well-being in such circumstances? Fodder for a future post–thanks for sparking the thoughts!

  2. I tend to agree with Neff. A lot of my regrets stem from certain convenient failures of memory around the decisions I made. Usually, if I bother to remember the reasons that I decided to do/ not do something, I realize that my decision was not only right (for me), it was the only reasonable decision to make in the situation (given my temperament, as you assert).

    Anyhoo, I completely agree that marrying a boring guy so that you won’t regret it later is really poor logic.

  3. What timing. I actually just wrote the sentence you were referring to, the common “people more often regret inaction rather than action.” I actually DO believe that, and psychological data bear it out (ask psychologists and psychiatrists). Yes, you are making a decision of one thing in place of another, but that thing may be choosing the status quo. I was thinking about cancer treatment. I hear from scores of women who did not opt to do the most aggressive treatments/surgeries and now either regret it or question/have fear surrounding whether they will ultimately regret it (if their cancer returns).

    For example, many women who opt not to receive chemo wonder if that was the “wrong” thing to do because now their risk of recurrence is higher. They do not necessarily know what the outcome will be, but their anxiety comes from regret.

    Of course regret is an interpretation, it’s a subjective assessment of whether you made the right choice. And what “right” means varies.

    I studied the concepts of maximizers and satisficers in graduate school and think that different decisions may fall under each. That is, just because I’m a maximizer in choosing a spouse doesn’t mean I’m one in choosing a car. Different decisions have different weights and may also be correlated with different potential for regret.

    I do believe we each have different tolerances for ambiguity and that can lead us to make different decisions. What’s acceptable in terms of cognitive uncertainty varies, and this may lead us to make decisions that are cognitively comfortable.

    As for your question at the end, my understanding of satisficing would say that you’re not asking the right question. You are looking at the byproduct of the decision (career, child) and asking, “Isn’t that enough?” That’s not what satisficing is, which is about the criteria used to make the decision at the time. That is, in choosing the actual person: is he/she “good enough” rather than “the best”? It isn’t about the outcome or byproduct. Your question gets more at hindsight, and judging the decision based on its outcome rather than the process used to make it at the time.

    A thought-provoking post.

    P.S. I think Gottlieb’s general advice in the way you summarize it here (to basically “settle” rather than maximize) is bad advice! It might be an interesting experiment in sociological theory, but as practical advice with potentially catastrophic outcomes, I think not.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Lisa! As for my summary of Gottlieb, in fairness I do think she would stress that she doesn’t mean for women to settle but rather to broaden their notions of what constitutes *not* settling. Again, though, in my experience–and I am very much of the demographic about which she writes–we are always doing the best we can given who we are. Telling ourselves we should be different people–the people who we may (or may not) become in another decade our two as our levels or risk tolerance and baseline experiences change–seems unrealistic and more likely to lead to harsh self-judgment than to improved decision-making.

  4. While I did not agree with the book at all, I am always reminded of a woman I met a number of years ago who was deliriously happy. She was the ex-wife of a Hong Kong millionaire. After two decades of marriage and two children, he concocted a story about a kidnapping threat and sent her and the children on a long round-the-world tour. When she returned from the trip, she found all her belongings in storage and a new woman installed in her home. She left Hong Kong and, having been cut off without a penny and with nowhere to go, went to live in her hometown in New Hampshire. She was living there on her own for a number of years when she met a retired French Canadian tradesman she met through a volunteer program at the local prison (they were both teaching convicts to read). She told my friend at the time: “He asked me to marry him. I don’t love him, but he’s kind and I’m lonely.” She moved into his trailer. Some months later, she announced to my friend that she had fallen in love with her own husband! I have no idea how she convinced herself she was “in love” with him, but when I saw them together they had been married about six months, and they were like two teenagers! He was very ordinary, but a nice guy, decent looking, easy to talk to, and he adored her. Maybe she did not need to convince herself of anything, but just recognize a great thing under her nose!

    • This is a great story, Lisa–but to my mind, it tracks what I just wrote in response to Lisa Adams. Her previous self didn’t fall in love with this guy, her new self did. It’s hard to imagine her coming to this place absent having traveled the life that she did. The human condition isn’t something we can bypass if we just make smarter choices.

  5. What seems to be missing from the equation is gratitude. Yes, life is full of all kids of “what ifs” and “if onlys” but what gets me to a peaceful place is GRATITUDE. Well, gratitude and compassion for myself. No, I shouldn’t have married the nice guy who turned out to be a world class ass***e, but I am grateful for my three amazing adult sons, grateful I learned to finally TRUST myself, and I have compassion for myself that- AT THE TIME- it was probably the best decision I could have made. Pitiful but true and another reason to be kind to myself. I’m grateful I now have the strength to create the life I love. I’m grateful I know the difference. I’m grateful I finally learned to love myself and put myself first- without an ounce of guilt!

    Gratitude and compassion- the unbeatable combo!

  6. My immediate reaction is: people actually bought that book? I think there is a difference between resetting expectations that are unrealistic or no longer feasible and deciding that one will just “settle” for something less and be happy with it knowing that it isn’t what you want. If Gottlieb were a friend of mine and suggested that this was her approach, I’d try to change her course, ask her what she is hoping to accomplish by being married, what is the fairy tale that she is hoping to find — and how would that look if she settled for something else?

    Perhaps it is different when choosing a life partner than when choosing a job. I’m not one to regret ‘Y’ when I chose ‘X’ and think of that maxim as being more about the ‘Z’ — those things that were not black & white, X or Y choices, but that we steered away from because of myriad reasons. Sometimes those reasons fall away or no longer matter — careers end, children grow up, mortgages are paid off (or the house is foreclosed), etc — and we can revisit those things that we thought we might have wanted to do years before if it weren’t for obstacles that seemed insurmountable, options that seemed incalculably risky in the given circumstances. Realizing that there are risks, that circumstances change, and that we can’t always be in control (so difficult for me, a classic control freak) is the healthier approach than settling for something that isn’t what we want. Neff is right: it’s hard being human. So why make it harder on ourselves by regretting life choices and things that we have no control over?

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