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The Psychology (and Philosophy) of ‘No Regrets’

A clinical psychologist argues that Nietzsche is better than any pop self-health book.
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Miley Cyrus, circa 2013; Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1887. (Photos: Debby Wong/Everett Historical/Shutterstock/Pacific Standard)

Miley Cyrus, circa 2013; Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1887. (Photos: Debby Wong/Everett Historical/Shutterstock/Pacific Standard)

From 2012 to 2014, it seemed America’s mantra had nothing to do with any sort of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” mumbo jumbo, or even “liberty and justice for all.” For two years, American stood for something simpler: YOLO. Born around 2004 and short for “you only live once,” YOLO is the late capitalist predecessor of carpe diem, the rallying cry of a Millennial culture tired and frustrated with burdens of the economic crisis and the constant nagging of doddering New York Times op-ed columns. While the sentiment may be admirable, the term has been misused and overwrought. YOLO has essentially become the over-used watchword for every toxic manifestation of masculinity looking to throw off the crushing yoke of personal responsibility. But, at its core, YOLO is also the current manifestation of a fundamental human sentiment: I want to live my life without regret.

Psychologically, humans have been struggling with the experience of regret for as long as anyone can remember. Regret appeared as an essential question of the human condition as early as two thousand years ago, in the dogma of Epicureanism. But our modern American culture has a complicated relationship with regret. Namely, regret has become a stigma of sorts. “It’s regarded as self-indulgent and irrational—a ‘useless’ feeling,” explains Carina Chocano in Aeon:

We prefer utilitarian emotions, those we can use as vehicles for transformation, and closure.... Regret is so counter to the pioneer spirit—with its belief in blinkered perseverance, and dogged forward motion—it’s practically un-American. In the US, you keep your squint firmly planted on the horizon and put one foot in front of the other.

The twin forces of American industriousness and modern YOLO culture have bred a society that abandons regret at every turn. But for psychologist Edward Chang, there’s a path forward: Americans need to drop the siren song of Kesha and Miley Cyrus and bone up on their Friedrich Nietzsche. A clinical psychologist with a philosophical streak, Chang heads up the Perfectionism and Optimism-Pessimism Lab at the University of Michigan, where he leads a team of researchers in a quest to understand how intangible emotional orientations like optimism, pessimism, and loneliness interact with different cultures across the world. Pacific Standard spoke to Chang about the nature of regret and what our modern culture could learn from Nietzsche about living with our mistakes.

How exactly do you define regret?

I have to break down the idea of regret into two parcels: the psychological, and more of the philosophical and cultural. There’s a general consensus on a definition for regret that most people won’t find controversial: a negative emotional reaction to a moment when we feel like we could have chosen otherwise, and that other choice would have been more beneficial to us.

A lot of researchers in psychology have defined the experience of regret in more nuanced ways, but they all tend to show a fairly common pattern. If you experience these pangs of regret, that experience is often associated with a host and range of negative psychological outcomes, from greater anxiety to depression to suicidal ideation in some extreme cases. This is what forms the foundation of the psychology of regret: If you’re the sort of person who has a great deal of regret in your life, and you’ve accumulated this grief as you’re growing older, you’re likely to be at high risk for maladjustment or depression.

This seems pretty straightforward. Is there anything new about the current philosophy of no regrets?

I have a young daughter who listens to music, and there’s a song out there by Kesha called “Die Young.” It’s about teenagers and living the night like it’s the last night of their lives. We find this theme everywhere in our history and culture. Think of Dead Poets Society, with its emphasis on the notion of carpe diem. There’s a tendency in human civilization to put an emphasis on living for that day, to its fullest. It extends back to ancient Greece, where citizens never had a notion of “human beings,” but of “mortals” and “immortals.” If you read any text from the ancient world, they all center on how a human being can live like the gods, forever. It’s this notion of mortality, embedded in us by religion, that drives not just aspiration, but also fuels a cycle of regret—a sense that no matter how hard you try, you’ll fail to live like the gods.

It was Nietzsche who really wanted to develop a coherent philosophy of “no regrets.” This starts, really, with Nietzsche’s “formula” for human greatness and the principle of amor fati, or “love of [one’s] fate.” Nietzsche wrote that “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

Nietzsche was struggling with the question, driven by the specter of mortality, with how humans should live a good life. He had two extreme positions in front of him: the ancient ascetic position, which dictates that to live a good life you must forgo human desire, and the more hedonistic carpe diem philosophy that we see crop up in pop culture. But really, Nietzsche wasn’t arguing for either position. When he talks about amor fati, there’s a higher level of uber-morality going on there, that goes beyond carpe diem or asceticism, that’s really asking us to embrace our mortality rather than shy from it with regret.

So I guess Nietzsche was the originator of YOLO, then?

Sort of. In a way, amor fati and the “will to power” aren’t just abstract philosophy; I’d argue that Nietzsche is actually one of the first and most powerful psychologists. Nietzsche asks: How am I going to get people to wake up from their day-to-day habits, the iron cage of daily life that makes us creatures of comfortable habit, and how should we be truly living our lives?

The vehicle for people to wake themselves up and change their lives, Nietzsche says, is regret. In reality, the YOLO and carpe diem culture is a misinterpretation of the “will to power” that made him famous. I’ve seen so many pop psychology books that suggest abandoning regret to live a good life; purging regret from your thought process. But none of these books have the backbone that Nietzsche did, to advocate that we face our mortality and the certainty of regret as a motivation for changing your life.

Nietzsche has laid out a two-pronged attack against regret. One: If you choose wrong, forget about it, just accept it and love it. Two: From this point on, live with constant awareness of your mortality.

So instead of living without regret, we should be embracing it?

The problem is that we don’t always realize this until we’re truly faced with our own mortality, like an acute or chronic health condition. And even when we try to achieve a good life and fail, it’s a question of embracing that failure, and reassuring yourself that you’re living intentionally and with purpose. Psychologically, that’s a smart and healthy way to process regret. It’s by embracing it that you learn to live a life without it.

Even more frustrating, American society doesn’t necessarily support this idea of embracing regret. From an early age, we have these great ambitions, but we tell ourselves that we’ll live that life 30 or 40 years from now. But by the time we’ve reached that point, that life isn’t available to us: We’re tired, we’re old, and we’re laden with regret that is immutable. We live in a society built around the idea of delayed gratification, and we’ve lost our ability to really use regret to bootstrap ourselves out of this manufactured comfort zone.

What are the big cultural differences in how we experience regret?

The perceived lack of control over your life is one major force underpinning our experience of regret: It’s premised on the assumption that we actually have the power to choose otherwise. I’m not sure if psychological research has captured that. [Editor's note: Research comparing regret across different cultures show varying differences in the subjective experience of the emotional reaction.] My sense is that you’ll find higher instances of regret in cultures where there’s a presumption that people actually have more control over their lives. In some cultures, say, India, where the caste system remains deeply embedded in day-to-day life, notions of regret aren’t as salient in shaping psychological well-being.

There are pluses and minuses to this. You don’t necessarily have a culture of people trying to transform their lives outside of these rigid classes, so there’s less broader social improvement driven by an individual desire for self-improvement. Even in totalitarian countries, as long as people believe they have some sense of control over their lives, I’m sure we’d see significant levels of regret.

But universally, it seems like mortality is the key here. Our culture is full of anecdotes about those who dodged death turning over a new leaf.

So many times we hear of someone developing late-stage cancer or some other sickness and saying “Oh my goodness, the things I wanted to do, or should have done!” Why wait that long? The effort for Nietzsche is to give everyone a dose of what it means to be mortal, and regret is the vehicle by which we confront our own mortality—and move past it.

This is Nietzsche’s prescription on how to live a life of no regrets, but keep in mind that it’s not hedonistic; this is a significantly more sophisticated question than just extreme pleasure. They’re all existential, philosophical questions about what it means to be a human being, to have a good and moral existence, not just the biological impulses to mate and procreate. It’s the search, the hunger, that Nietzsche is trying to answer.

A lot of psychological research in therapy suggests that it’s really mindfulness that helps deal with depression, suicide, and other negative ideation. Isn’t that interesting? Nietzsche would probably have predicted that anything that got people to stop and take stock of their lives would have some inherent psychological value. Indeed, were finding in scientific literature that mindfulness can get people to accept their flaws and mistakes and move past regret, but also be more lucid about the world they live in and how they build that world with others. It’s interesting that the therapies that work now are really made up of ingredients of Nietzsche would have proposed in his formula had be been a modern-day psychologist.

It feels like there’s two competing methods of dealing with regret here: The guided clinical version, which you’ve described, and the YOLO/die young mentality. What’s the relationship between the two?

In some ways, the pop culture that’s funneling notions of “let’s die young, let’s live it up tonight”—Nietzsche might say that this is an excuse. It’s definitely a mental gain, a hyped-up alternative to dwelling on past (or future) mistakes, and that’s fine if it gives people the motivation to pull the trigger. But with this sort of mantra, there’s a high chance you’ll actually end up doing something you regret—and that’s kind of going in the exact opposite direction, isn’t it? Even if you come to embrace “living fast and leaving a beautiful corpse,” that’s veering more into the world of nihilism than it is intentional, thoughtful, deliberate living.

What would you tell people about how to live with regret?

If I were to provide guidelines to pursue amor fati, it would be for people to realize and accept that there are some things we lack ultimate control over. There is a fine balance between teaching children the difference between having and not having control. We tell kids they can be president or an astronaut, but at the same time they live under the complete control of their parents, and it creates a very odd, strange equilibrium with regards to how kids develop a sense of agency and, in turn, how they experience regret.

On an adult level, how do we want to embolden children to feel a sense of control, but also develop this meta-cognitive awareness? There are cases when people are diagnosed with a fatal disease and come to terms with their mortality, but it’s tough to expose the average person to; they’ll simply retreat into their comfortable world. This fast-paced world is built on connection, on business, on the go-go-go, where we’re constantly trying to produce more innovation and succeed. When does anyone ever have a moment to reflect on their own mortality, to come to terms with the life they live?

Are Americans hungry enough for this? Are we reaching a psychological breaking point?

Anthropologist Lionel Tiger, currently at Rutgers, has this theory that he calls the “manufacture of evil,” where he gets at the idea that society is in “a terrible tangle of moral, ethical, and social confusion,” and that we’re creating the means of our own social chaos. Technology is out of control, changes in the economy are out of control, and we’re acclimating as best we can, but often that’s not enough.

There’s a hunger for getting this information. How can we cultivate an American culture that keeps our ingenuity and our innovation but allows us to pursue these questions? Maybe it’s a question of education. Perhaps early on, we talk to young adults and cultivate a sense of what it means to live a good life in the social context. We don’t have anything like that—it doesn’t add to GDP, so why would we? People should be able to say, at that last moment, that “yes, I did it, and I’m OK with what I’ve done.”

The problem is that there is a desire for that time to live thoughtfully and deliberately. Perhaps this is why we see questions of vacation coming up as a major labor issue. But in the bigger picture, even if there is a need or a want, there’s an entire industry to package and reframe regret as part of our national growth machine.

The YOLO industry is part of this. It’s selling a way of handling regret without inducing the introspection and reflection that can actually put us on the path for a better life.

Perhaps we’re in a psychological bubble. We’re going to reach a point where it’ll pop. But at that point will we actually realize a greater connection to humanity?