Early one morning a couple of months ago, as I was rushing around trying to get my act together in time to catch a train to New York, I filled a thermos with coffee, reached into the fridge, grabbed an unopened half-gallon of milk -- one of those fancy, bottled-in-glass-like-the-good-old-days kinds -- and promptly dropped the entire thing on the kitchen floor.
Here's what happened next. The glass shattered upward and outward, in spectacular, slow-motion-film-worthy fashion; I later found shards in the cat's dish, the salad bowl, and the blender, two shelves up. The half-gallon of milk set about demonstrating some principle of physics involving volume and surface area, or maybe some principle of religion involving loaves and fishes. Either way, in under three seconds, vast, improbable quantities of it were everywhere: soaking one leg of my jeans, running in lewd streams down the oven, flowing through a gap under a closed door and into the next room. As I stood there missing my train, I had a flash of insight. The reason we are instructed not to cry over spilled milk is that, if you spill enough of it, crying (or its adult analog: cursing) is the only natural response.
The notion that we shouldn't cry over spilled milk -- more broadly, that we should not lament what we cannot change -- is the claim I set out to challenge in this TED talk. Granted, one purpose of the spilled-milk saying is to remind us not to sweat the small stuff, a sentiment I wholly support. But that saying is also part of a larger set of cultural admonitions against experiencing regret: "What's done is done," "Let bygones be bygones," "Let the dead bury the dead." We have this idea -- especially here in America, a relentlessly forward-facing nation -- that looking backward, particularly toward times of difficulty and pain, is both a failure of will and a waste of time. Ideally, it seems, we should look back just once, at the end of our days, in order to survey the past and triumphantly announce, like Edith Piaf, "Je ne regrette rien."
It's a seductive idea, at once cowboy-staunch and Piaf-glamorous. But it is also, on closer examination, a glib one. To be sure, no one is well served by wallowing in regret forever -- but nor is regret merely a form of emotional quicksand, intrinsically paralyzing and best avoided entirely. On the contrary: of the ten main negative emotions (the others being anger, anxiety, boredom, disappointment, fear, guilt, jealousy and sadness), regret turns out to be the most beneficial of the bunch. The psychologist Neal Roese, for instance, notes that people rank regret higher than all other negative emotions in terms of its ability to help us make better decisions in the future, avoid undesirable behavior, improve social relations, deepen self-awareness, and refine our understanding of the world.
Regret, in other words, is the best worst feeling. It serves as a rich source of information about ourselves: about what we value, what we want most in life, how we believe we should act, and who we hope to be. The philosopher Avishai Margalit once pointed out that the smallest possible moral community consists of one's current self and one's future self. We strive to act in ways that we will approve of when we look back on them, and regret serves to enforce that compact. It is an emotion of conscience; it holds us to the standards of our best self. That's why, in moments of acute regret, we often feel profoundly alienated from ourselves. "What was I thinking?" we ask. And: "How could I have done that?"
If you doubt the value of past regrets in shaping future actions, consider one of Roese's curious findings. It turns out that we typically feel regret only when it can influence our behavior -- in other words, only when we somehow stand to benefit from feeling it. Regret persists, Roese writes, only "when there is still a chance to make a difference." It's possible that people claim to have no regrets once they've reached the end of their life precisely because they've reached the end of their life -- and regret, therefore, has reached the end of its utility.
Still, if regret serves subtle but crucial practical ends, it also has an unmistakable existential bite. After I finished cursing in the kitchen that morning, I laughed at myself; might as well, once you've literalized an annoying proverb and missed your train and ruined your outfit and moved your entire refrigerator to mop up the mess behind it (and realized, insult to injury, that you now have no milk for your coffee). But I also felt a strange twinge of sadness. Like most of us, I've seen awful events unspool from a single action, or from a concatenation of independently insignificant but collectively momentous decisions. As trivial as it is to spill a bottle of milk, it reminds us of some very non-trivial realities: that we are not always in control, even when we feel like we are; that unwelcome outcomes can be set in motion by seemingly innocuous actions; that we do not have the power to see into the future, or return to the past and undo what has been done.
Small wonder, then, that our instinct is to avoid regret: it reminds us not only of specific past failings but also of our fundamental and frightening powerlessness. And yet, in the end, the refusal to face regret might be the most regrettable choice of all. As I point out in this talk, the absence of regret is a hallmark of sociopathy, and the opposite is true, too. However uncomfortable it might be, the experience of regret is fully, profoundly human.
And so, a counterintuitive suggestion: at a time of year when most people are looking to the future and enumerating their resolutions for the new year, I encourage you to take a moment and dwell on your regrets instead. For one thing, it's probably high time you forgave yourself for whatever it is you wish you'd done differently. (Try talking about it. For years, I regretted something I once said to my sister -- who, as it turned out, didn't even remember me saying it, and felt terrible that I'd spent so long feeling bad.) For another thing, our regrets, unlike our resolutions, are a form of knowledge. They do not simply remind us that we did badly; they remind us that we know we can do better. I suspect -- and the evidence suggests -- that they will be a far more precise and persuasive guide to the person you'd like to be in 2012.