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  • So that's Johnny Depp, of course.

  • And that's Johnny Depp's shoulder.

  • And that's Johnny Depp's famous shoulder tattoo.

  • Some of you might know that, in 1990,

  • Depp got engaged to Winona Ryder,

  • and he had tattooed on his right shoulder

  • "Winona forever."

  • And then three years later --

  • which in fairness, kind of is forever by Hollywood standards --

  • they broke up,

  • and Johnny went and got a little bit of repair work done.

  • And now his shoulder says, "Wino forever."

  • (Laughter)

  • So like Johnny Depp,

  • and like 25 percent of Americans

  • between the ages of 16 and 50,

  • I have a tattoo.

  • I first started thinking about getting it in my mid-20s,

  • but I deliberately waited a really long time.

  • Because we all know people

  • who have gotten tattoos when they were 17

  • or 19 or 23

  • and regretted it by the time they were 30.

  • That didn't happen to me.

  • I got my tattoo when I was 29,

  • and I regretted it instantly.

  • And by "regretted it,"

  • I mean that I stepped outside of the tattoo place --

  • this is just a couple miles from here

  • down on the Lower East Side --

  • and I had a massive emotional meltdown in broad daylight

  • on the corner of East Broadway and Canal Street.

  • (Laughter)

  • Which is a great place to do it because nobody cares.

  • (Laughter)

  • And then I went home that night, and I had an even larger emotional meltdown,

  • which I'll say more about in a minute.

  • And this was all actually quite shocking to me,

  • because prior to this moment,

  • I had prided myself

  • on having absolutely no regrets.

  • I made a lot of mistakes

  • and dumb decisions, of course.

  • I do that hourly.

  • But I had always felt like, look, you know,

  • I made the best choice I could make

  • given who I was then,

  • given the information I had on hand.

  • I learned a lesson from it.

  • It somehow got me to where I am in life right now.

  • And okay, I wouldn't change it.

  • In other words, I had drunk our great cultural Kool-Aid about regret,

  • which is that lamenting things that occurred in the past

  • is an absolute waste of time,

  • that we should always look forward and not backward,

  • and that one of the noblest and best things we can do

  • is strive to live a life free of regrets.

  • This idea is nicely captured by this quote:

  • "Things without all remedy

  • should be without regard;

  • what's done is done."

  • And it seems like kind of an admirable philosophy at first --

  • something we might all agree to sign onto ...

  • until I tell you who said it.

  • Right, so this is Lady MacBeth

  • basically telling her husband to stop being such a wuss

  • for feeling bad about murdering people.

  • And as it happens, Shakespeare was onto something here,

  • as he generally was.

  • Because the inability to experience regret

  • is actually one of the diagnostic characteristics

  • of sociopaths.

  • It's also, by the way, a characteristic of certain kinds of brain damage.

  • So people who have damage

  • to their orbital frontal cortex

  • seem to be unable to feel regret

  • in the face of even obviously very poor decisions.

  • So if, in fact, you want to live a life free of regret,

  • there is an option open to you.

  • It's called a lobotomy.

  • But if you want to be fully functional

  • and fully human

  • and fully humane,

  • I think you need to learn to live, not without regret, but with it.

  • So let's start off by defining some terms.

  • What is regret?

  • Regret is the emotion we experience

  • when we think that our present situation

  • could be better or happier

  • if we had done something different in the past.

  • So in other words, regret requires two things.

  • It requires, first of all, agency -- we had to make a decision in the first place.

  • And second of all, it requires imagination.

  • We need to be able to imagine going back and making a different choice,

  • and then we need to be able to kind of spool this imaginary record forward

  • and imagine how things would be playing out in our present.

  • And in fact, the more we have of either of these things --

  • the more agency and the more imagination

  • with respect to a given regret,

  • the more acute that regret will be.

  • So let's say for instance

  • that you're on your way to your best friend's wedding

  • and you're trying to get to the airport and you're stuck in terrible traffic,

  • and you finally arrive at your gate

  • and you've missed your flight.

  • You're going to experience more regret in that situation

  • if you missed your flight by three minutes

  • than if you missed it by 20.

  • Why?

  • Well because, if you miss your flight by three minutes,

  • it is painfully easy to imagine

  • that you could have made different decisions

  • that would have led to a better outcome.

  • "I should have taken the bridge and not the tunnel.

  • I should have gone through that yellow light."

  • These are the classic conditions that create regret.

  • We feel regret when we think we are responsible

  • for a decision that came out badly,

  • but almost came out well.

  • Now within that framework,

  • we can obviously experience regret about a lot of different things.

  • This session today is about behavioral economics.

  • And most of what we know about regret

  • comes to us out of that domain.

  • We have a vast body of literature

  • on consumer and financial decisions

  • and the regrets associated with them --

  • buyer's remorse, basically.

  • But then finally, it occurred to some researchers to step back

  • and say, well okay, but overall,

  • what do we regret most in life?

  • Here's what the answers turn out to look like.

  • So top six regrets --

  • the things we regret most in life:

  • Number one by far, education.

  • 33 percent of all of our regrets

  • pertain to decisions we made about education.

  • We wish we'd gotten more of it.

  • We wish we'd taken better advantage of the education that we did have.

  • We wish we'd chosen to study a different topic.

  • Others very high on our list of regrets

  • include career, romance, parenting,

  • various decisions and choices about our sense of self

  • and how we spend our leisure time --

  • or actually more specifically,

  • how we fail to spend our leisure time.

  • The remaining regrets

  • pertain to these things:

  • finance, family issues unrelated to romance or parenting,

  • health, friends,

  • spirituality and community.

  • So in other words, we know most of what we know about regret

  • by the study of finance.

  • But it turns out, when you look overall at what people regret in life,

  • you know what, our financial decisions don't even rank.

  • They account for less than three percent of our total regrets.

  • So if you're sitting there stressing

  • about large cap versus small cap,

  • or company A versus company B,

  • or should you buy the Subaru or the Prius,

  • you know what, let it go.

  • Odds are, you're not going to care in five years.

  • But for these things that we actually do really care about

  • and do experience profound regret around,

  • what does that experience feel like?

  • We all know the short answer.

  • It feels terrible. Regret feels awful.

  • But it turns out that regret feels awful

  • in four very specific and consistent ways.

  • So the first consistent component of regret

  • is basically denial.

  • When I went home that night after getting my tattoo,

  • I basically stayed up all night.

  • And for the first several hours,

  • there was exactly one thought in my head.

  • And the thought was,

  • "Make it go away!"

  • This is an unbelievably primitive emotional response.

  • I mean, it's right up there with, "I want my mommy!"

  • We're not trying to solve the problem.

  • We're not trying to understand how the problem came about.

  • We just want it to vanish.

  • The second characteristic component of regret

  • is a sense of bewilderment.

  • So the other thing I thought about there in my bedroom that night

  • was, "How could I have done that?

  • What was I thinking?"

  • This real sense of alienation

  • from the part of us that made a decision we regret.

  • We can't identify with that part.

  • We don't understand that part.

  • And we certainly don't have any empathy for that part --

  • which explains the third consistent component of regret,

  • which is an intense desire to punish ourselves.

  • That's why, in the face of our regret,

  • the thing we consistently say is, "I could have kicked myself."

  • The fourth component here

  • is that regret is what psychologists call perseverative.

  • To perseverate means to focus obsessively and repeatedly

  • on the exact same thing.

  • Now the effect of perseveration

  • is to basically take these first three components of regret

  • and put them on an infinite loop.

  • So it's not that I sat there in my bedroom that night,

  • thinking, "Make it go away."

  • It's that I sat there and I thought,

  • "Make it go away. Make it go away.

  • Make it go away. Make it go away."

  • So if you look at the psychological literature,

  • these are the four consistent defining components of regret.

  • But I want to suggest that there's also a fifth one.

  • And I think of this

  • as a kind of existential wake-up call.

  • That night in my apartment,

  • after I got done kicking myself and so forth,

  • I lay in bed for a long time,

  • and I thought about skin grafts.

  • And then I thought about how,

  • much as travel insurance doesn't cover acts of God,

  • probably my health insurance did not cover acts of idiocy.

  • In point of fact, no insurance covers acts of idiocy.

  • The whole point of acts of idiocy

  • is that they leave you totally uninsured;

  • they leave you exposed to the world

  • and exposed to your own vulnerability and fallibility

  • in face of, frankly, a fairly indifferent universe.

  • This is obviously an incredibly painful experience.

  • And I think it's particularly painful for us now in the West

  • in the grips of what I sometimes think of

  • as a Control-Z culture --

  • Control-Z like the computer command,

  • undo.

  • We're incredibly used to not having to face

  • life's hard realities, in a certain sense.

  • We think we can throw money at the problem

  • or throw technology at the problem --

  • we can undo and unfriend

  • and unfollow.

  • And the problem is that there are certain things that happen in life

  • that we desperately want to change

  • and we cannot.

  • Sometimes instead of Control-Z,

  • we actually have zero control.

  • And for those of us who are control freaks and perfectionists --

  • and I know where of I speak --

  • this is really hard,

  • because we want to do everything ourselves and we want to do it right.

  • Now there is a case to be made