Act Now, Regret Later?

Many carry out the pretty irrational act of buying Lottery tickets out of “anticipatory regret”: those who choose the same set of numbers simply cannot bear the thought of their coming up one day when they hadn’t bought a ticket. Anyone out there carrying on doing the best they can in a dysfunctional relationship with a similar mindset?

This amusing, informative column from Oliver Burkeman in last Saturday’s Guardian (UK) introduced me to Kirkegaard’s cheery idea that whatever we do in life we will end up regretting it — and the image of a resident of 19th century Copenhagen heartily regretting having invited Kirkegaard to a dinner party.

It may well be true, I thought, but is regretting everything not the same as regretting nothing? Does this not mean that we should just get on and act without using possible regret as a guide?

Burkeman quotes a “recent study by Northumbria University” which shows that many carry out the pretty irrational act of buying Lottery tickets out of “anticipatory regret”. Those who choose the same set of numbers simply cannot bear the thought of them coming up one day when they hadn’t bought a ticket. Anyone out there carrying on doing the best they can in a dysfunctional relationship with a similar mindset?

“What I might feel later if I take this decision…” assumes that everything else in life apart from the decision being made will remain the same, or follow a predictable course. This is highly unlikely, and the mental gymnastics involved in taking all emotional possibilities into consideration seem less productive than sorting out the likely practical implications of a course of action and then coming right into the present moment and seeing/feeling if we really want to do it.

The present moment, with all the resources we bring to bear on it, is at the end of the day, all we can be certain of, and the only place from which and in which we can act. Research also shows that we tend to regret what we did not do, the endless retrospective vistas of it, rather than what we did do, which we can always reframe or see as a mistake to learn from. All in all, it looks as if it is better to act now rather than spend our precious energy in futile attempts to control our emotional reactions in the past and the future.

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