Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Friday, June 10, 2011

Carpe Diem- No Better Choice

Now, maybe I should refrain from advocating outright impulsiveness on a daily basis, but I'm a little tempted, given what there is to know about one of our all-time favorite emotions, regret. Initially you might think that actions with negative outcomes probably cause more regret than inactions with negative outcomes- and, you'd be right, in the short-term. If I were to switch from stock A to stock B, then lose a bunch of money, I would regret doing so more than I would regret sticking with stock A and losing a bunch of money. That's the natural reaction we have- we feel more responsibility for our actions, and their consequences are more salient, so we feel more regret short-term for our actions. But, consider this: what do people regret years down the road, when they're older and opportunities have passed them by?

"I wish I had pursued a better education." "I wish I had given a relationship with her a chance." "I wish I had spent more time with my family members when I had the chance." Woulda, coulda, shoulda. In the long-term, it's our regrettable inactions that really bite, more than our regrettable actions. Why is that? I'll touch on a few of the reasons.

When you do something that doesn't turn out so well (e.g., cheating on your partner, failing a test because you didn't study enough), sure, you regret it. But you also do things to counteract these failings: you ask for the forgiveness of your partner, or you study much harder for the next test. These failings are finite, and easily recognizable as failings in the short-term, when there's still time to "make things right". On top of that, you try and focus on that ever-so-comforting "silver lining" that comes from a bad experience, even if you end up failing to fix the initial problem outright. Your partner dumps you anyway? At least you learned not to cheat. You fail the class anyhow? Now you know to study harder in the future. Also, because these events are finite, it's easier to gain some sort of closure- that is, you don't become emotional every time you think about something wrong you did.

But, when you fail to do something and regret your failure to act later on, it's a lot harder to patch things up. Consider looking back on these two scenarios when you're 60 years old. Scene one: you passed up the opportunity to apply to few really great colleges, because you didn't think you could get in, and weren't sure you could handle a long-term relationship with your partner. Scene two: you decided to not have children, even though you wanted to, because you didn't think that you could handle career pressures and raising kids at the same time.

Now, try to fit the consequences of these regrettable inactions into a box, the way we did with the regrettable actions. Tough? Thought so. The "What if?" thoughts are so numerous in these situations that it's dizzying; infinite, in fact, barring any limitations your imagination imposes. On top of that, inactions are often characterized by a lack of confidence at the deciding hour; we break down, struggling beneath the weight of potential failure, and choose not to act. But, in retrospect, we think: "I could have done that. Why didn't I do that?" and we come up empty, lacking a good, solid reason for why we didn't just go for it.

Worse still, we also tend to think about regrettable inactions a lot more often than regrettable actions. The Zeigarnik effect states that people tend to be more preoccupied with incomplete goals or tasks. This leads to thinking more about these things; thinking about them more often equates to remembering them better. If you have a clearer recollection of something regrettable, that's going to lead to more frequent memories of that thing, and thus more pain. Hooray? Not really.

A quick side note, before wrapping things up: the top three domains of most regretted inactions, in no particular order, are education, career, and romance. Unfortunate, really, because the first two can easily conflict with the third, but that's how things are. I've previously considered this dilemma, and though I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it, I've shifted my position some as of late, partly because of long-term regret.

Now, I'm not sure I can advocate complete impulsivity, since it's important to take into some consideration current consequences and the impact your actions will have on other people. But, it's usually best to shore up what confidence you have, call it enough, and take action. Think of doing so as taking care of yourself for the future- try and keep those wistful nights of wondering about "what could have been" down to a minimum by acting now.

So, the basic lesson of all this, in a few words? Well, "carpe diem" is a good phrase. Nike also has the right idea- "Just Do It." That works too. Though, I was talking to my friend Josh about this a couple days ago, and we agreed that it's important to "do stuff", so that's what I'm going to go with.

The moral: Do stuff.

Take care,


            Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102(2), 379-395. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.102.2.379


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