The Good News About Regrets


It’s not the first book you’d think of recommending to someone facing a big choice – whether to marry, get divorced, have children, switch careers, that kind of thing. But early in Henri Bergson’s often impenetrable work Time And Free Will, published in 1889, the moustachioed French philosopher casually detonates a truth bomb, delivering the most liberating decision-making advice I’ve ever heard. “What makes hope such an intense pleasure,” he writes, “is the fact that the future, which we dispose of to our liking, appears to us at the same time under a multitude of forms, equally attractive and equally possible.” In other words: one reason it’s fun to fantasise about the future is that you get to contemplate all the wonderful things you could do, without having to choose among them. Making a decision, on the other hand, is agonising – not just because you might get it wrong, but because it forces you to sacrifice all but one of your possible futures. “Even if the most coveted of these becomes realised, it will be necessary to give up the others, and we shall have lost a great deal.”

Obvious once you’ve heard it, perhaps. But I could feel my neurons reconfiguring as it sank in. Even if you made every decision perfectly, Bergson’s saying, your life would be a pathetic failure compared to your dreams of what might have been: dreams are “pregnant with an infinity of possibilities”, whereas you only get the one life. So you can stop fretting that a given choice might later provide grounds for regret, because it definitely will. (Unless you’re the type who never feels regret, in which case it won’t.) Either way, trying to avoid regret is pointless; doing anything worthwhile entails not doing almost everything. I find this an almost inexpressible relief.

Kieran Setiya, a philosopher in his early 40s, probes this further in his excellent recent book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. We no-longer-young people, he notes, tend to romanticise our earlier decades, when possibilities seemed limitless. But that’s an error. Even then, our possibilities were radically limited, and most of our dreams were guaranteed to bite the dust; we just didn’t know which ones. It’s “not that there was a time when we could have everything, but that there was a time before we had to commit ourselves and thus confront our losses”. Nostalgia for lost youth involves another error, too: we don’t really wish we were our younger selves. We wish we were our current selves, wiser and stabler, transported back in time. You tell yourself you’d make better decisions if you had your time again; but it was the ones you actually made that turned you into the person capable of making those better decisions. To read more from Oliver Burkeman, click here.