"Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention"
Or so the song goes.
Seems, though, these days, we’re all wracked with regret, too many to mention.
The consumer research company Mortar, in partnership with KP Nuts, surveyed 2,000 people in the UK.
They calculated that 110 hours a year are lost to regret. The top five include not travelling more before kids, careers and other responsibilities kicked in; and losing touch with old friends. A quarter of us miss "the one that got away".
110 hours a year? Wow.
That’s well over twice as much time devoted to sex, but half the amount of time spent in meetings, according to another survey, conducted in 2017, which examined where the rest of our time goes.
We used to regret spending so much time at the office; now we just wish we’d picked the right one. Or, more precisely, one that paid better. (Not sure that signals progress.)
Eight in 10 people wish they’d taken more risks. “You regret more the things you don’t do” is the oft-quoted sentiment.
And yet I’d argue that we don’t take risks precisely because we fear regret. Loss aversion bias dictates that our fear of losses – of money, status, dignity… – outweighs our desire for possible gains. That’s why “You’ll regret it” is such an effective threat.
We can perhaps find solace in Søren Kierkegaard’s Either Or, which could be summed up: you’ll regret it if you do; you’ll regret it if you don’t.
“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.”
The deliberate repetitiveness of the writing conveys the endless looping of regretful thinking.
Resign yourself to regret. It’s all part of the many-sided messedupness of being human.
Then again, as my septuagenarian neighbour, one of the few remaining boat builders in the area, tells me when our paths cross on our morning walks along the Exe, “Keep moving forward or sink.”
I’ve always found regret – the endless “what ifs” and “if onlys” – bloody exhausting. The time lost to interminable agonising about the road not taken, or opportunities missed – in life, business, and love – could be better spent. The risk is that we overthink and fail to act.
You need to process the past, but constant picking away at war wounds means they won’t heal.
And let’s face it, studies show that our recall of the past is often unreliable. Memories distort over time. Just look at flaws in eyewitness accounts, or listen to couples relay shared experiences from their past and disagreeing or drifting off topic and into vagueness.
Memories are notoriously hazy. Our brains “fade to gist”, as psychologists call it. Our overworked grey cells lock down on the essence of a moment as we rush on to new experiences. We later reinvent these events to suit our future selves or to justify life-changing decisions.
That said, there’s something to be said for the stoic concept of amor fati, or love of one’s fate, or one’s past. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”
Dear reader, summon to mind one regret. One thing you did or did not do at one moment in time. Do you blame yourself? Your callow youth? The circumstances at the time? Outside influences? Bad luck? What you ate for breakfast that day or inclement weather? Fact is, it was probably a mix of these things. Fact is, you’re human, prone to mistakes, misunderstandings and moments of weakness. You can’t expect a life free from blemishes or mishaps. That would be beyond reason.
In its defence, regret shows our desire to reflect on and learn from experience. To regret is to face the past with honesty, not to lie to ourselves or cling to easy reassurances.
And if I’m to shoehorn a freelancing business lesson into this piece, one of my freelancing regrets would be not having gone freelance earlier...
I say this somewhat hesitantly. Looking back, I can see that I had so much to lose: a salary, security, the pension. All things considered, I was right to stick it out until I really needed a change.
And jumping ship isn’t easy, especially during a downturn. As bad luck would have it, I handed in my resignation in March 2016; the EU referendum and the ensuing uncertainty followed hard on its heels.
It is only having lived it, however, that I realise now how much freelancing suits my temperament. I don’t crave security; I don’t mind the uncertainty. I like the variety, and sense of independence and adventure that comes with the fabled “hustle”. I’m happiest working alone. Researching, writing, editing are all a joy.
Back to the survey, I suppose it’s good to know we’re not alone. We all lose time to the lamenting and the longing. There’s no point worrying about worrying, though it’s best to rein in regret if you’re running a business, or trying to enjoy life.
Which takes me back to "Keep moving forward or sink."
Sometimes a simple metaphor will suffice to help us break free of obfuscating abstractions and endless overthinking.
As Hamlet says: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
For more on this, and how to overcome the agony of regret, see