Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What may have been

This article was first published in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times.
The Straits Times, Sun, Mar 14, 2010, Mind Your Body

By Gary Hayden, gary@garyhayden.co.uk

PHOTO: http://health.asiaone.com/a1media/health/03Mar10/images/20100312.163935_whatmayhavebeen.jpg

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these; It might have been." (American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, 1807-1892)

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I recently read Charles Dickens' novel, Our Mutual Friend, and was impressed by a passage in which ageing bachelor Melvin Twemlow sits and broods on the eve of a friend's wedding:

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"For, the poor little harmless gentleman once had his fancy, like the rest of us, and she didn't answer (as she often does not), and he thinks... that if the fancy had not married someone else for money, but had married him for love, he and she would have been happy (which they wouldn't have been), and that she has a tenderness for him still (whereas her toughness is a proverb). Brooding over the fire, with his dried little head in his dried little hands, and his dried little elbows on his dried little knees, Twemlow is melancholy."

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For readers unfamiliar with Dickens' old-fashioned turns of phrase, "had his fancy" means loved a woman, and 'she didn't answer' means things did not work out between them.

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Like Twemlow, we all, at times, find ourselves brooding over what might have been.

Who knows what successes we might have achieved had we studied hard? Or what happiness we might have known if we had married a former sweetheart? Or what satisfactions we might have enjoyed had we single-mindedly pursued our dreams?

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For all his sadness though, Twemlow was at least spared the pain of self-recrimination over the loss of his beloved. It was, after all, she not he who chose to marry someone else. How much more bitter his regrets would have been had the responsibility been his.

It is a sobering truth that almost every decision we make closes more doors than it opens. When we decide to marry someone, we deprive ourselves of the freedom to marry anyone else. When we choose to pursue a particular course of study, we effectively choose not to pursue countless others.

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When we take up a certain profession, we turn our backs on a whole host of alternatives. Every decision brings with it the very real possibility of regret.

The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, sums it up beautifully: "I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations, one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it - you will regret both."

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This is all rather depressing. But perhaps things are not quite so bad as they seem. In his highly readable book, 59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot, Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, discusses some research that may shed some light on how we can minimise our regrets.

PHOTO: http://health.asiaone.com/a1media/health/03Mar10/images/regret1.jpg

The research was conducted by Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University in the United States. It involved asking people to look back over their lives and identify their biggest regret.

Interestingly, most of the respondents (around 75 per cent) said their biggest regret involved something they did not do, while only a minority (around 25 per cent) said their biggest regret involved something they did do.

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Why are we more likely to regret things we did not do than things we did do? Professor Wiseman says that part of the reason is because we can see clearly the consequences of things we did do, but are free to imagine what might have been the consequences of things we did not do.

For example, I may regret choosing a particular career when I was young. In such a case, the reasons for my dissatisfaction will be obvious: perhaps the salary is too low or I am often bored or I find that I am not very good at it.

Similarly, I might regret marrying a certain woman. Again, the reasons for my dissatisfaction will be obvious: we constantly argue or she is unfaithful or she does not understand me.

In both cases, the reasons for my dissatisfaction, though very real, are limited by what has actually happened.

PHOTO: http://health.asiaone.com/a1media/health/03Mar10/images/positve.jpg

"However, the situation is completely different when it comes to things that didn't happen," writes Professor Wiseman. 'Suddenly, the possible benefits seem almost endless." Like Mr Twemlow, we conjure up beautiful (though, in reality, improbable) images of what might have been.

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We torture ourselves with the thought of joys, loves and successes that would almost certainly never have been ours even if we had done things differently.

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It is worth bearing in mind that our biggest sources of regret are likely to be the things we did not do rather than the things we did.

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It is true, of course, that we may come to regret asking someone out on a date or wasting precious months of our lives writing an unsuccessful novel. However, we are far more likely to regret not doing those things.
By Gary Hayden, gary@garyhayden.co.uk

PHOTO: Regret is the recognition that something that was done or said (or not done)