We can but live once and at a particular given moment can walk but one road. Even though regrets mostly pertain to misgivings about not having taken an alternate course of action, one could have regrets about future. Our thinking, takes us back and forth, and we almost live different life scenarios- like the heroine in the movie “sliding doors”- who found her new love, when she boards the train in scenario #1 and catches her boyfriend in bed with another woman when she reaches home; whereas in scenario #2 she misses the train, gets mugged and then meets her future love, but escapes the shock of catching them in the act. Both scenarios develop differently, though in a “parallel manner”in the movie. She gets pregnant, and has a miscarriage in both scenarios, however in scenario #1 she lives and #2 scenario she dies.
Psychologically, regrets are “counter factual” because cognitively we pursue “what didn’t happen “so it is “counter” to the “fact”.
Is it a futile activity which at best leads to pangs of emotional pain or is there a possibility of redemption and growth?
Let’s start with the assumption that it’s futile activity and collect evidence to prove it wrong just like researchers do using “null hypothesis “. Can we establish it as a constructive emotion? Wait a minute-is it just an emotion or is there a cognitive component. Many philosophers have a consensus on the hybrid nature of this “state of mind”
Opportunity breeds regret. In other words, those who are oppressed or live in a rigidly conventional society would rarely be regretful. They have little use for this activity.
There is some other set of people who are immune from regrets – deeply religious, because they have no other choice but, follow the dictates of “God”. On the other end of spectrum, there is some evidence, that psychopaths remain free of this tormenting emotion as are people with damaged frontal lobes of the brain.
But for the rest of us,it is inevitable- whether futile or constructive.”
It is a value laden activity- we can only regret not having acted in a certain way, if we value that course of action. At times, we are aware of this valency, as we are making decisions- we are really speculating how could we avoid “regrets in future”. Let me explain with an example. Nancy got pregnant- her first pregnancy- out of wedlock at a very inconvenient time in her life when she was still in college with no income and little possibility of support from the “one night stand” who she met in Hawaii and has no way to track him down for child support. Should she abort this unwanted pregnancy or go ahead and have the child? If she aborts her pregnancy-she is putting “value” on her career- thinking she can become pregnant again and if she goes ahead, it with it perhaps valuing “motherhood” – assuming career is secondary or something on the similar lines.
Whatever course of action she chooses, I think most of us would agree that she could have some regrets about the choice not made going forward, but then it also depends on what our values are.
So, we have established that futuristic regrets help us make a choice based on how we prioritize our values.
What’s the payoff for being regretful for some decision already taken? painful as it is.
To define the unique type of pain regret is, let me borrow from Ishiguro’s “remains of the day” and bring in the central character Steven – a butler, very devoted one to both his old master – an English Nobleman who was not that noble after all; and his new master – an American nouveau rich. His whole life was centered on doing a job well, with utmost professionalism, to the exclusion of any “romance at work”. After his new master, sends him out for a little vacation- Steven chances upon an opportunity to meet his old colleague Ms. Kenton and realizes that by keeping romance out of work he also threw an opportunity for a fulfilling life with Ms. Kenton who is rather unhappy but devoted wife, may have had feelings for Steven but were unrequited.
Unlike the heroine Helen in Sliding doors, Steven alas, cannot go back and fix it. When he comes back to the manor, he resolves to learn how to engage in “bantering” which he had been struggling to get a hang of .In some oblique way this resolve was a product of poignantly painful regret mentioned earlier.
Just like Steven, maybe we would factor the expression of regrets into our future decisions if come face to face with choosing one course of action over the other. It could help rearrange our value system.
I may have some “regrets” – pun very much intended, for not bringing more evidence but some of you might agree that the “null hypothesis” that regrets are futile, has been disproven.