Monday, August 30, 2010

How to use "What would I regret the most?" to make life decisions

"Regrets of the Dying" is a bittersweetly inspiring piece by Bronnie Ware on her blog, Inspiration and Chai (via <— via).

Ware used to work in palliative care for "patients . . . who had gone home to die . . . for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives." She had the chance to hear them answer the question what they regretted most, and her blog post lists "the most common five" (she doesn't say if these are in order of how common they are, or just ordered for the sake of having a list):

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. . . .

2. I wish I didn't work so hard. . . .

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings. . . .

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. . . .

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
She notes that #2 especially affects men. I wonder if #3 does too.

Instapundit emphasizes the striking observation Ware gives in explaining #5:
“Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.”
Althouse adds:
Why are you doing what you are doing? Do you need death staring you in the face to take that question seriously?
I don't know about that, but what seems clear is that death staring people in the face changes people's answers about what they regret the most. An article in the New York Times in March 2009 — back when the recession felt more dire — said:
Now that shoppers have sworn off credit cards, we’re risking an epidemic of a hitherto neglected affliction: saver’s remorse.

The victims won’t evoke much sympathy — don’t expect any telethons — but their condition is real enough to merit a new label. Consumer psychologists call it hyperopia, the medical term for farsightedness and the opposite of myopia, nearsightedness, because it’s the result of people looking too far ahead. They’re so obsessed with preparing for the future that they can’t enjoy the present, and they end up looking back sadly on all their lost opportunities for fun. . . .

Splurging on a vacation or a pair of shoes or a plasma television can produce an immediate case of buyer’s remorse, but that feeling isn’t permanent, according to Ran Kivetz of Columbia University and Anat Keinan of Harvard. In one study, these consumer psychologists asked college students how they felt about the balance of work and play on their winter breaks.

Immediately after the break, the students’ chief regrets were over not doing enough studying, working and saving money. But when they contemplated their winter break a year afterward, they were more likely to regret not having enough fun, not traveling and not spending money. And when alumni returned for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about too much work and not enough play on their collegiate breaks.

People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates,” said Dr. Kivetz, a professor of marketing at the Columbia Business School. “At some point there’s a reversal, and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures.”

He and Dr. Keinan managed to change consumers’ behavior simply by asking a few questions to bus riders going to outlet stores and to other shoppers shortly before Black Friday.

The people who were asked to imagine how they would feel the following week about their purchases proceeded to shop thriftily for basic necessities, like underwear and socks. But people who were asked to imagine how they’d feel about their purchases in the distant future responded by spending more money and concentrating on indulgences like jewelry and designer jeans [sic — the NYT uses no period at the end of this paragraph]

When I look back at my life,” one of these high rollers explained, “I like remembering myself happy. So if it makes me happy, it’s worth it.”
Back when I was in school, right after I had turned in a paper, I used to relish the feeling: "That's it! I'm free. I can't redo it. No matter how good or bad a job I did, whether I put in too much work or not enough work, it's not my problem anymore."

Now, that feeling of mine was, in a sense, irrational and unrealistic. It actually still mattered how well I did on those papers I had turned in, because there were going to be other papers in the future that I'd also need to do a good job on. If you still care about the assignments you've already turned in, this can help you take your work in the future more seriously. Even if you're turning your last paper before your graduate, your concern for the work you've already finished is going to carry over into your work ethic in a job or a job interview.

But someone at the end of their whole life has no need for any such concern. If you're in hospice care, you have little motivation to analyze how various specific tradeoffs you made throughout your life actually affected how enjoyable and fulfilling your life was from day to day. If you know you have almost no future and one of your most important remaining goals is to minimize your pain, it makes a lot of sense to adopt a hedonistic perspective on your life. Though these sentiments may be some of the patients' last words, they are not the last word in how we should live our lives.

Back to that New York Times article — I found it from an excellent blog about psychology and statistics called The Mentaculus. The blogger, Andy McKenzie, has a "working assumption that every human tendency is on a spectrum." He describes how he used the idea of regret to channel his decision making before reading the Times piece:
I've used the regret heuristic in the past with mostly positive but somewhat mixed success. I've probably actively thought "Will I regret this?" around 15 times in the past year and about 10 of those decisions I would now characterize as positive. But there's something missing from that simple approach.
After reading the Times article, he concluded that the way someone applies the "regret heuristic"
will vary based on what time scale he/she chooses. Perhaps the best strategy is to estimate whether you will regret something in 5 days and also whether you will regret it in 5 years. Then, use both estimates in making your decision.
McKenzie's "regret heuristic" on a "spectrum" would seem to be a more sophisticated tool for making life decisions — if only you could keep in mind such an elaborate formula and apply it effectively. Whether you could actually manage to run your decisions through this heuristic, full of unknown variables, is another question. The goals expressed by Ware's patients — "happiness," being "true to yourself" — might seem more idealistic and hedonistic. But they're also more accessible and simple, which could make them more efficient decision-making tools.

IN THE COMMENTS: McKenzie responds.


Jason (the commenter) said...

in March 2009 -- back when the recession felt more dire --

You're very lucky to be able to say that.

John Althouse Cohen said...

That does not reflect my personal situation! I meant: back when the prospect of imminent collapse of the entire financial system was more fresh in people's minds, if not still an actual fear.

Andy McKenzie said...

Interesting synthesis of these ideas. I agree that the big problem here is whether you'll *actually* be able to use the regret heuristic in this way.

What you'd want is the integral of the utility of the decision over all future time points, probabilistically weighted. Of course that is impossible, but what is the *best* approximation? It seems like this would be a very fruitful research subject...

Sarah E. Burton said...

Fantastic post, and the most thoughtful and comprehensive reaction to Ware's piece I have read so far.

Wherein religion is merely a code of ethics and values by which to live one's life, I abandoned that institution years ago for more practical and worthwhile advice gleaned from elderly friends and family members.

It's difficult idea to frame, since a lot of people think it's weird and morbid to follow regrets of the dying, but these kinds of thoughts have served as precious advice to me.

Jason (the commenter) said...

I would rather know the life decisions the author took to end up working in palliative care, one of the worst jobs I could imagine. That would probably be more helpful information for me. It was clever of them to write a post complaining about their job without most people noticing. Perhaps this is the sort of skill you develop in palliative care, hiding your own misfortunes from others, lest you depress the unfortunate even more.

Imagine going to work at a hospice every day, hearing people fret about the end of their lives. "They're dying," you would say, "but I'm alive, why the hell am I here?"

Maybe that's why the article says the author "worked" in palliative care. Well, God bless 'em for the years they put in! I don't know how they did it.

Anonymous said...

Andy/John, You could use a discount rate to get an idea of future utility. People's future discount rates vary widely - Gary Becker for instance has shown that cigarette smokers are rational people with a high discount rate. People with high discount rates (don't care much about the future) shouldn't worry about whether they'll regret something 5 years from now, but people with low discount rates (think of people you know that are compulsive savers) should worry about regrets.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Gary Becker for instance has shown that cigarette smokers are rational people with a high discount rate.

Well, if you assume people are generally rational, and you're trying to explain why almost a third of people smoke cigarettes, perhaps the best way to reconcile this observation with your theory would be to describe them as having a high "discount rate."

But I think having a high discount rate is inherently irrational, so that's a non-starter for me. (I'm not denying that people use it or even that I use it.) The high discount rate explains the irrationality, not the rationality, of smoking cigarettes.

Jason (the commenter) said...

JAC: The high discount rate explains the irrationality, not the rationality, of smoking cigarettes.

In the last post he called people who disagreed with him evil. Now he's saying they're crazy.

I can't tell if this is an improvement or not.

John Althouse Cohen said...

In the last post Jason was an aesthetic relativist. Now he's an ethical relativist...

Jason (the commenter) said...

JAC: In the last post Jason was an aesthetic relativist. Now he's an ethical relativist...

As a natural philosopher I would hope that were the case. However, I think anyone not in a knife fight with JAC over say, what to watch on television, would have to be considered one.