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The Idea of Living Life with “No Regrets” Is Ridiculous and Unhealthy

Regret is a complicated but essential emotion. To have them? Human. To ignore them? Dumb.

Julia Wright/Flickr

The cult of “no regrets” is strong. Everywhere you look, there’s an article or book promising how to live a regret-free life or enjoy “no regrets diet plan”. “No regrets” is plastered on shirts and hashtagged to no end. However appealing this type of thinking may seem, it’s also flat-out ridiculous. “To have no regrets, you think that absolutely everything you’ve done and everything that happened to you is perfect just the way it is, or you just don’t have the perspective to see that it’s not,” says Anna Gotlib, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College CUNY. Gotlib is the editor of The Moral Psychology of Regret in which neuroscientists, philosophers, lawyers, and other thinkers interrogate the essential backwards-looking emotion to offer insight and perspective. Make no mistake: Regrets are indeed essential. While, yes, we can all get caught up in them, they teach us a lot about ourselves and our values. And for parents, regrets are particularly powerful. Having kids makes you think back on your life, what you wish you did, what you wish you didn’t, and how to make your kids better than you are. Fatherly spoke to Gotlib about regret, the problems with the “no regrets” cult, and why we all need to be more accepting of negative emotions.

You see a lot of articles and people preaching the “No Regrets” lifestyle these days. There are knuckle tattoos and self-help books and just a general slice of society that seems to want to eliminate the idea of regrets in general. For one, it seems hard to believe. But, even if it was, the “no regrets” lifestyle seems wildly unhealthy.

In the intro to my book, I wrote a little bit about this “No Regrets” cult that’s sort of infected a lot of the West and especially the U.S. When people say they have no regrets, A) I don’t believe them and I think they’re lying to themselves and B) I think that’s really unhealthy. Because to have no regrets, you think that absolutely everything you’ve done and everything that happened to you is perfect just the way it is or you just don’t have the perspective to see that it’s not.

Striving to have no regrets is really unhealthy because in regret, we get to reassess our lives. Whether or not we chose our actions, we get to think about, dwell, or ruminate on who we are and how we relate to the world, where we have failed, etc. Regrets are necessary to being a complete human being.

So, what is regret, exactly?

That’s a hard question. But it’s definitely a backwards-looking emotion that looks to one’s past and reconsiders past choices or events. Regret isn’t just about choices. You can regret something where you didn’t even participate as an agent. It’s about wishing things were otherwise.

Statistics tend to show that people tend to regret more things that they haven’t done. But I think there are plenty of people who regret choices they made to do something. Regret about inaction is special and particularly powerful because you don’t really know what might have been, you just know you didn’t do something. There are all these endless possibilities that the imagination can create. If I only did this, then oh, the wonderful things that could’ve come to pass.

That kind of thinking can be pretty dangerous.

It can be. Because you can certainly think yourself into a dead end and into a position where everything you’ve actually done is horrible and everything you haven’t done is potentially wonderful, which is a kind of magical thinking.

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Are regrets a way of blaming ourselves? Are they ways of trying to cope with things we’ve done?

I think they can be a way of blaming ourselves. But I also think that they might be a way of trying to take control of something that was beyond our control.

A lot of people misinterpret the term “regret”, using it as a stand-in for times when they didn’t really have a choice.

Yeah. It’s one thing if I blame myself for being late to a really important meeting, if I keep regretting something that went wrong because of the weather or because there was traffic on the highway. That’s not regret. I think there are times we think we regret what we’re doing, but what we’re doing is just wishing things were [different] and trying to project  ourselves into an agency that we didn’t have to begin with. I think regret for some people can be a shortcut for imagining that they could have done something, or not done something, they never had the option of doing in the first place.

Women, for example, who don’t have children because they simply can’t have children are often asked if they regret not having children. Regret in this case is just the wrong category. It can be a very offensive one because you didn’t have a choice to begin with. You can regret the fact that you’re not a mother, but having children was not really something you could have done.

So, regret has to be hinged on something you had a personal choice in.

If you start pulling it apart philosophically, you might come to that, but I think regret is so many things for so many people. And for a lot of people, it’s regretting events. It’s not that that regret, because they couldn’t have done anything, goes away. This is what therapists do. They will bring up the idea of: Is this something you could’ve had a hand in at all?

There’s a big difference between interrogating regrets and obsessing over them. Is there any way to rationalize them and then just let them go?

Gosh. If someone knows, they’re going to make a lot of money. I wasn’t born in this country, so some of my ways of looking at things may not be distinctly American, but I think that in the U.S., people tend to shy away from negative feelings. They tend to treat them as problems to be solved or something to be done away with. One of the ways to handle regret that’s not this despondent dwelling on your horrible mistakes is to think about the fact that human beings are supposed to have negative feelings. You’re supposed to have regrets and sadness and disappointment.

This idea of eternal happiness for all as an ideal is really debilitating to a lot of people. In Europe, where I come from, if you smile at strangers, people wonder what’s wrong with you. Not that you’re supposed to frown at them. But there’s a sort of forced happiness, or upbeatness, here. And that doesn’t mix very well with regret.

Not at all. New parents face this kind of scrutiny to feel overjoyed all the time.

Yes. And for lot of people it can be oppressive. A lot of my friends are new parents or fairly new parents and they’ve expressed that after they have their baby, everyone asks them, “Are you overjoyed?!” and they’re like “No, I’m exhausted. We want to sleep.” There’s this master narrative about having to be happy and having no regrets. I had a friend tell me once, “I’m not sure if my choice to be a mother was the best choice for me.” She didn’t use the regret word, but she was certainly in the neighborhood.

That’s such an honest feeling. That’s what she was feeling in the moment. And that can be healthy. Regarding parenting, there’s a performative aspect involved where you’re supposed to feel a certain way all the time, because that’s what you’ve seen and that’s what’s expected. But we all have good days and bad days.

Yeah, and I think that young fathers are in pretty difficult circumstances. The role of fatherhood is so volatile and changing. I sometimes think that they’re not sure what they’re supposed to feel and the realization is, There’s no ‘supposed to.’ That’s the hard part. Well, I’m a new father, I’m supposed to be a pillar of strength and overjoyed and I’m neither of those things, you know?

How are regrets essential to being human?

Well, I think it can be transformative, in the sense that regret can show you what your values may be that you may not even be aware of yet. When you ask yourself, What is it that I’m regretting and why am I regretting it? The answer — if you’re open to the answer — may be surprising. Everyone has this narrative of who they are. But I think when you interrogate your own regret honestly, you may find out that you’re not really who you thought you were. Your values are different and your relationship to the world is different. I think that can be scary. But it’s very worthwhile.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.