Don't Regret Regret

I watched a fascinating TEDTalk the other day, featured in the Huffington Post Countdown of the 18 Best TEDTalks of the Year. This one was given by the renowned Kathryn Schulz, a journalist and author, who spoke eloquently about the notion of regret, including its sociological and behavorial economics characterizations and her own personal stories with it. Her talk felt empowering because regret is universal and Kathryn touches on our sense of frustration and guides us through the process. An interesting fact about regret is that older adults have listed education as their deepest regret; we as students should feel lucky that we still have time to make the best out of our educational experience. It is perhaps fitting to really think about this during finals week.  


There are a couple interesting things about regret. It makes us go through a 4-step process that unrelentingly repeats in our head. We go through denial, bewilderment, punishment and preseverance. When something goes terribly wrong like getting a test back and missing three unfathomably easy questions, there's first a sense of "make this go away" followed by "I can't believe I did that." Then oftentimes we feel the need to punish ourselves for making such an avoidable mistake. Lastly, preseverance indicates that the process is starting over again and the intensity compounds with each cycle. Because of our inability to change the past and our ability to imagine our present being much better if the alternative had occurred, it's hard to let go of regret. This points to the existence of the proverb "don't cry over spilled milk" which is drilled into the American society. We encourage people to be practical and get over themselves; wallowing is feeble and looking forward is efficient.

Ms. Schulz suggests that regret is both human and acceptable and shouldn't be shunned. It shows that we make commitments to being responsible for our actions because we become so upset when we mess up. Personally, I think regret can be one of the biggest motivating factors for people. It can incense people, make them want to change something about themselves. I mean, what is a person who regrets their actions going to do? They are going to improve in the future and avoid the same mistake at all costs. Regret can be excruciatingly painful but if it contains an element of remorse then it proves that we are moral as human beings. As for regrets for less repeatable deeds, such as getting tattoos or spilling coffee over your computer, then maybe the best you can do is find a little humor in it. Laughter may be able to put things into perspective. Thus Ms. Schultz leaves the audience with these final words, "regrets do not simply remind us of what we did badly, they remind us that we know we can do better."