You will never regret being kind. You will never regret having hope. You will never regret prioritising happiness. You will never regret being yourself. You will never regret taking chances.
People think regret is born out of bad choices, but more often than not, regret is the result of not making a choice. Taking a chance may come with consequences, but that is a risk we have to take. Because if you’re too afraid of consequences or being hurt and refuse to take action on the important things, life will pass you by in the blink of an eye and you might miss it. On your deathbed, it won’t be the decisions you made that you regret, but the bites you didn’t take.
Happiness is an active process, not something that will come to you passively. So choose to be kind and choose to be hopeful. Choose to laugh and choose to love. Choose to be the person you want to be, living the life you want to live.
Generally speaking, we live our lives trying to avoid making a mistake. Perhaps it is because we were brought up to do everything as perfectly as possible. Perhaps it is because we fear the consequences. Perhaps it is because we refuse to accept that we are imperfect beings.
Regardless of the reason, we have a constant nagging voice in the back of our minds asking us: “Are you sure you want to do this? What if it’s all a big mistake?”.
This mentality affects our work, our financial decisions, our sense of adventure and even our relationships. Sometimes, we even go as far as not taking any action in fear of screwing it up. The fear of mistakes makes us take less risks and leaps of faith, hindering our ability to live a full life.
But to quote a great captain, Jean-Luc Picard:
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
Life is full of mistakes. No matter how hard we try to minimise risk, life will always find a way to trip you up. Because we are not a time-travelling supercomputer that can see and predict every variable, it is impossible to make no mistakes. Ergo, it is okay to make mistakes, because to err is to human.
In fact, mistakes are not always bad.
A “mistake” such as the singer’s voice cracking on a live performance may make it a more special performance, because it is a sign the singer poured all of their emotion and energy into the song, rather than playing it safe to avoid a mistake.
Columbus discovered the Caribbean because he mistakenly thought that he could reach Asia by sailing due west of Spain.
Everyone has a story of getting lost while travelling and stumbling onto an unforgettable experience that they could not have possibly planned for.
Sometimes, we will look back on our life and realise that what we thought was a mistake back then turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because each and every mistake we made led us to where we are now.
Of course, some mistakes carry irreversible, dire consequences, such as drinking and driving, or falling asleep while a nuclear reactor fails (Three Mile Island accident). But outside of these, most mistakes in life are something that you can learn something and move on from.
One trait that has allowed our species to survive for so long is our ability to plan ahead. Whether it be hunting an animal, preparing for a winter, interviewing for a job or making a move on a romantic interest, we think of all the ways the situation might play out. Our brain has an extraordinary capability to imagine and simulate possible outcomes. Based on this, we can optimise a plan of action.
Let’s look at an example. When we plan a trip, we choose a location and research sights to see, foods to eat, places to stay in, what the weather will be like… Then, we come up with an itinerary by thinking of how to group everything into different days, what transport to take and setting aside enough time for rest and to buffer against unexpected changes. Planning allows us to travel efficiently so that we can pack as much fun and experiences, while preparing us for when things go wrong.
But of course, life is full of surprises and it never play out perfectly. Our instinctive ability to simulate and plan for the future is probably evolution’s way of tackling this. We are trained to think of all the different ways our plans can fail, to maximise our chance of survival.
Therefore, as powerful as this ability may be, it comes at a great cost. It makes us obsess about “the right moment”.
When we face a crossroads in life, we have to make choices and take action. Should you take this opportunity to move to a different city? Should you ask out that girl or guy on a date? Should you make that leap of faith and change careers? Because these important decisions carry greater consequences, our brain goes into overdrive thinking of how things may fail and ruin our lives. We worry that we are not ready for the change or that a better opportunity may arise. So many times in life, we see opportunities slip by while we are hesitant, leaving us with regrets.
No matter how much you plan and prepare, the universe can easily find a way to surprise you (see Murphy’s Law). There is no such thing as the perfect moment, or a perfect person, or a perfect life. So waiting for the right moment is as futile as waiting for a train that is never coming. A ship waiting in a harbour for perfect conditions before setting sail is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
What we can do is to just live life. It is certainly good to have a rough sketch of a plan, to know what general direction you are heading in. But when it comes to the finer details, it is best to just make a decision and act on it, whether it be based on rational thinking or gut feeling.
If things work out, that’s great. If it doesn’t, you still gave life a chance instead of letting it pass by you. You can learn from the experience and try different decisions the next time.
Instead of waiting for the right moment for everything to be perfect to take action, we should be taking actions and making the moments right.
If time travel was possible and you could go back in time to change one thing in the past, what would you change?
Would you try to change the world by attempting to kill Hitler before World War 2 starts? Would you buy stock of a company you know is doing extremely well in the present? Would you take a leap of faith that you never did, such as asking out someone you didn’t have the courage to, or moving to a city that you always wanted to live in?
If we ignored the numerous hypothetical troubles that come with time travel, such as the grandfather paradox and chaos theory, the possibilities seem endless. This is because hindsight is 20/20 and we have a tendency to obsess over roads not taken and missed opportunities. Even though we cannot change the past, we lament how if we had the choice, we’d make so many changes to make our present and future better.
Now ask yourself this question: if you from the future could travel back in time to now, what changes do you think they’d want to try to make? The thing with time is that it marches on linearly, making every moment a past of the future. A major difference in this scenario is that unlike the first scenario, we actually have the power to change in the present and the future.
So whenever you catch yourself regretting how life would be different if you had made different choices in the past, change your frame of mind. Instead, consider what changes you could make now to make your future self have less regrets. Maybe it is treating yourself (within reasonable limits), or finally taking that trip you always dreamed of, or taking a chance on something you are unsure or anxious about, or keeping resolutions on living a healthy, better life.
Although physics (currently) dictates that time travel is impossible, our minds have the power to travel in time virtually from the future to now, letting us make choices and take actions so we can live with less regrets.
French philosopher Jean Buridan proposed the following thought experiment. Imagine a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty. It is placed exactly in the middle of a pail of water and a stack of hay. The donkey wants to eat the hay because it is hungry, yet it also wants to go for the pail of water to quench its thirst. However, it is precisely the same distance from the food and the water, meaning it has to sacrifice one for the other. Unable to choose between the hay and water, the donkey ultimately dies from hunger and thirst.
We laugh at the stupidity of the ass, but how often are we placed in such a predicament where we try to chase two things at once and end up with nothing? How often do we miss an amazing opportunity just because we failed to make a decision?
Every day, we are faced with many choices. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the work we do, the people we love… Whether you are at work, school or home, choice is an unavoidable part of life. In fact, we put a great deal of importance in choice, stating that it is a fundamental right of a free individual to make their own choice.
So what happens when this right is taken away from us? A common reaction to this is anger and revolt. People whose freedom are taken away by a dictator will throw a revolution to choose who they want as a leader. Children throw tantrums to show that they do not want their parents to decide things in their stead. There are cases of death row inmates attempting to take their own lives because “ending my life is the one choice I have the right to”.
We like to think we are free individuals, making our own decisions in life. We mock others for being sheeple – choosing to not choose by following the mainstream decision or preference. But choice is often an illusion.
Consider how many of “your decisions” are truly from your own heart. Are you drinking Coke over Pepsi because you really appreciate the taste difference, or because of effective marketing? Are you listening to that song because you enjoy the melody, or because it is at the top of the charts and everyone is listening to it? Are you eating that menu because you were attracted to what the ingredients are, or because the waiter recommended it as “the special of the day”? You would be surprised how little choice you have sometimes, no matter how free you think you may be.
But choice has an ugly, darker side. Making a choice is often difficult, mentally taxing us as we make an internal pros and cons list to try sort things in order and determine “the best choice”. There are countless research showing that the more choice that is available to you, the harder it becomes for you to choose and the more distressed you become. It could be severe to the point that you get analysis paralysis, where you spend so long making a decision that you miss out or never take an action. Not only that, but making a choice puts the responsibility on you. For example, although medicine is moving towards a patient-oriented system where the patient makes an informed choice, the patient may feel burdened with guilt if their choice results in a poor outcome. This applies to every choice we make from day to day in the form of regret. Regret is the sinister monster that makes us think “What if?”. What if we chose differently? Regret leads to blame and blame leads to sorrow and anger at yourself.
This is the paradox of choice. It feels good to be able to express your uniqueness through choice, but at the same time, the freedom of choice can cause pain and distress just as easily. If your choice goes against the group decision, it can make you stand out and cause you to be shunned. This is why so many of us “choose to not choose” and give up our right of choice. Being social animals, we have a tendency of following groupthink while ironically shouting for the importance of free will. To fight this natural tendency and making a choice reflecting your own thoughts, beliefs and identity is a brave thing to do.
However, that is not to say that surrendering your choice is always a bad thing. A couple who met through arranged marriage may have a happier relationship than those who met through romance. People who’ve grown up in communist countries say that “it was easier when we didn’t have to choose everything”. Most importantly, reflect on your childhood where so many of your parents’ decisions – no matter how oppressive they seemed then – turned out to be the right call.
So in the end, the most important choice you can make is this: do you choose to surrender your choice or do you choose free will? Choose whatever makes you happy, because there is no point choosing something and regretting it because you are unhappy.
If today was the last day of your life, what would you regret? You might know for certain that it will not be something like money or fame, but if you cannot think of a specific answer, it might be worth taking a look at the enlightenment other people reached at the moment of their death. Human beings show the greatest insight about life at the door of death. The following are the most common regrets collected by a palliative care nurse called Bronnie Ware.
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me: The most common regret is ending your life without achieving the countless number of dreams and goals you had. If there is a dream you can achieve today, do not leave it to tomorrow. That way you can achieve even more dreams in the future.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings: Many people suppress their emotions to get along with other people. But if you push down your feelings and repress them, they will ultimately take a toll on your mind and body. If someone is making you angry, be angry at them (but not all the time obviously). If someone captivates your heart, tell them that you love them. If you have a problem, speak up.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends: The busier life gets, the less you keep in contact with your friends. But having a friend to hold your hand and give you words of reassurance at your final moment is a much more successful life than earning a fortune.
I wish that I had let myself be happier: Too many people are misled into thinking that happiness is not a choice. Whatever the situation, happiness depends on your perception of the world. If you are unhappy, that is a sign that you should change something in your life. There is no one on the face of the Earth that does not deserve happiness. Whatever others may say, live everyday as blissfully as you can.
Remember. A successful life is one full of happiness and without regrets.