o. Regret


Before moving on from decision making, I would like to say something about regret. We all experience regret over decisions we have made or failed to make. “I wish I had done this”, “I shouldn’t have done that”, “If only I had done something else instead…” and so on. This is especially the case when an opportunity seems to have been missed or a risk was not avoided.

We should admit to mistakes because this enables us to correct them or mitigate their impact. However, there are several reasons for not feeling the emotion of regret.

  1. The most obvious one is, of course, that what is done cannot be undone. The past cannot be changed. We can only act in the present and the future to mitigate the effect of any seemingly poor decisions.
  2. Decisions often have multiple outcomes, some of which are positive and others negative. In a chaotic world, these outcomes can rarely be predicted. So, although an alternative decision may have yielded the benefit we desire, it may also have yielded unanticipated disbenefits. Furthermore, the latter might outweigh the former.
  3. Most people have an optimism bias. This leads us to believe that we are more likely to be successful and less likely to suffer misfortune than reality would suggest. So, when we miss an opportunity or suffer a risk, we tend to believe, often incorrectly, that an alternative decision would have avoided this.
  4. In reality, the future is probabilistic. After an initial decision if we wish to achieve the desired outcome, then we often must make ongoing adjustments in the face of the unexpected. In practice, we often manage our way to desired outcomes over a period of time.
  5. Focusing on what might have been uses mental resources. There are benefits to be had in learning from “mistakes”. However, there is also a danger that, if we focus on them too much, we will suffer depression, neglect future decisions, or begin to lack the confidence to make them.

I recommend the novel, “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig, which illustrates this beautifully.

In conclusion, life should be lived as it is, and not as it might have been. However, we must remain at the steering wheel and make constant adjustments if we want it to take the direction we would wish.

When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

Alexander Graham Bell