You feel regret when you realize that something you have (or haven’t) done turned out badly1. You ‘kick’ yourself for having done it, and wish you could turn back time to do it differently. For example, you can regret your decision to move to another city, when it is not what you expected it to be. Furthermore, you can regret an inaction – a missed opportunity. For example, when you fail to muster the courage to talk to someone you are attracted to. Regret does not have to involve a deliberate decision, you can also regret not having paid enough attention to something, like when you accidentally send a sensitive email to the wrong person. You can even feel regret about something that you can’t really blame yourself for, like when you buy an expensive device and then find it on sale the next week.
When people are asked to think of which things they regret, they often first think of grave matters – such as regretting that they never had children or pursued a certain career2. However, there are also many smaller forms of regret that you can experience in everyday life – like regretting that you forgot to pick up milk and now have to go all the way back to the store.
Some actions you can regret almost instantly (such as sending an email to the wrong person), other things can take a long time and sometimes even a personal change before you regret them. For instance, some people may find stopping their education a good idea when they do it, but may regret it thirty years later, when they look back on their life.
The proverbial wisdom ‘It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ suggests that, when looking back, action is better than inaction. Indeed, researchers found that people generally feel more regret over missed opportunities than over made mistakes3. The main reason for this difference is that the consequences of a bad action are often clear and manageable, whereas the missed benefits of inaction can endlessly increase in the imagination of the regretful person. Secondly, bad actions can be (partially) corrected, while missed opportunities are often forever missed. For example, a woman who marries Mr. Wrong can get a divorce, but a woman who passed up Mr. Right must deal with the fact that he is no longer available.
In the comic, Murphy is asked to make an immediate decision about his future role in the company. Although he is not entirely sure, the marketing job seems the best choice. However, he almost immediately realizes he made the wrong choice – he now has to work for Patrick, whom he despises. His former assistant Neil gets the much better IT-job.