Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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 that control freaks and perfectionists should not get tattoos, and I'm going to return to that point in a few minutes. But first I want to say that the intensity and persistence with which we experience these emotional components of regret is obviously going to vary depending on the specific thing that we're feeling regretful about. So for instance, here's one of my favorite automatic generators of regret in modern life.