Thinking About No Regrets

Lately I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights, which is a well-crafted if ordinary show about a small Texas town and its obsession with football. In recent episodes, I’ve heard several characters encouraging each other with the phrase “no regrets”.

I regularly hear friends say the same thing, to each other and about their own pasts. In fact, “living one’s live without regrets” seems to be a popular cultural trend at the moment.

On the one hand, I applaud this update on “seize the day”. You should ask that boy out or quit the job you hate or travel to India if that’s what you really want to do. And if promising yourself “no regrets” helps, then get on with it.

On the other hand, I want to examine the idea of having no regrets a little more closely. Is it really a good thing?

For example, all of us have hurt others along the way, intentionally or otherwise. You can’t live in society without doing that. When you do hurt somebody, isn’t it appropriate to regret that?

This question of regrets seems to coincide with the philosophical notion that “everything happens for a reason”. That latter phrase is a modern salve, isn’t it? It’s also a get-out-of-misery-free card. If everything happens for a reason, then whatever befalls you is out of your hands, and therefore not regrettable.

But, then, regrets are a weight. They’re ballast that we’re eager to jettison. Is the theory of “no regrets” that you can stop regretting something but still learn from it? As in, “well, I invested that ten million dollars poorly, but I don’t regret it because I’ve learned not to invest in MySpace”.

But isn’t rejecting regret kind of a cop out? As in, “I made this mistake, but I’m not going to bear the emotional impact I caused?”

Is there a healthy level of regret? Should we regret big mistakes for a long time, and little mistakes for a short while, or vice versa? What role might regret or contrition have in our evolutionary makeup? That is, why did we evolve a capacity to regret?

These are incomplete thoughts and fragmentary questions. What do you think about having regrets, or having none?


  1. Another one to add to your list is “You only regret the things you didn’t do” – it drives me nuts when people say this. I mean, yeah, I get that they are trying to say you should, as you put it, ask out the boy/quit your job/go to India, but seriously, for every decision you make, you are deciding *not* to do something else. Maybe the boy turns out to be a total jerk and you wasted your time on him when you really should have being asking about some other boy – or spending some time getting to know yourself.

    As for regret, I would guess that it makes sense evolutionarily because humans are a social species. We need something to keep us in line so that we don’t do horrible things to each other – so regret evolved and those that felt guilty for doing bad things to people didn’t do more bad things and thus got to stay in the group and pass on their genes. (This is just off the top of my head – feel free to shoot it down).

    That being said, my counsellor always used to say “guilt is a choice and it serves a purpose. Is it serving your purpose or someone else’s?” I think you can feel the regret, learn from your mistake, and move on.

  2. I remember a great radio interview I heard with Michael Caine years ago where he was asked if he had any regrets. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but his response was something like this:

    Regrets? No. (Then he stops.) Well, that’s not entirely true. Is it? We all say we have no regrets. But we have regrets.

    Here’s how I see it. I want to regret the things I did do, not the things I didn’t do. So I try to do everything. If I’ve done it and I regret it, I can live with that. But I don’t want to regret something I haven’t done.

    And that has stuck with me as a wise way to look at decisions.

    And he has a great line about doing the movies that get looked down on:

    Regarding “Jaws: The Revenge,” he once wrote, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”


  3. Regret and guilt are different. But I think “no regrets” is also a cliché, and it’s unlikely most of the people who say it actually mean it. If you really do, it’s a bit sociopathic, isn’t it?

    “Ah, I killed that guy to steal his car, but no regrets, right?”

    Saying you have no regrets means that nothing is a mistake. We should not endlessly ruminate on our mistakes, but we should not forget them either. “Everything happens for a reason” is also a secular version of “it’s God’s will,” which many people seem to use as a way to give up on responsibility, and sometimes ambition.

    We cannot change the past, but we can remember it, and learn from it. I would not change much about my life, looking back, but I’m also glad I have regrets — that means I have lived a life.

  4. Perhaps when you are young, you don’t have the time to reflect on something that has happened. You need to keep moving and not be paralysed by your thoughts and fears. Thus you have no regrets because you have not processed the matter sufficiently. Believe me, when you are 60 yeras old, you have all sorts of regrets–but again, you cannot allow them to paralyze you.

  5. Interesting question! Good discussion…I agree with you about “Regret” as a cultural phenomenon–I would like to know more about how/if regret is perceived in other cultures and beyond the Western world…Can anyone comment on that? Has it always existed but we have now developed the language to put words to it or as someone mentioned, has it evolved? Is it the new “Closure”? Is there a “History of Regret”? You know, like “The History of Stuff”…?

  6. I have a painful, seemingly relentless regret. Which has been buried inside for years. Now at 50 years old I want to go back and change my desion, But I can not. So I looked her up to let her know I regreted my desion for years. I felt that some how it would help me deal with my regret.
    To my horror. She had passed away 4 years ealier. Regret is exausting and painful.

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