The unhappiness we feel didn’t start overnight. It began long ago, back to when we were children. Long before any of us could have imagined where we are today…
Back then, it was the oppressive adults who held all the cards. And they laid them on the table for their kids, just one at a time. Rules, homework, chores. These are mine! That’s yours! You can’t have it until you are done! No, you can’t go out and play until you finish your work.
We wanted to call the shots. We tried to make the decisions. And then, we were thrust into the world of options. As soon as we are barely old enough to drive, we start making a long-range plan. Do we go to college? Do we join the workforce? If we decide to go to college, what for? What classes should I take? What career am I after? The list goes on.
Each time we make a decision, we force the decision of another. Our choices are interlinked with one another. If I choose to take the chemistry class, I must sacrifice music theory. And so our lives go. Boiling down to a series of choices. Each with its own unique consequences and sacrifices.
We hit a point in our lives where we start to question our choices. We come to the realization that there are trade-offs to each action. We had to sacrifice important things in our life to get to where we are today. Now, we begin to question whether our choices were the right decisions for ourselves. Think of it this way, have you ever described or thought of someone as “the one that got away.”? This is just one example of how your choices today can affect your entire life.
Is it possible to go back in time and change a decision that negatively affected your life? As humans, we become obsessed with looking back at our life choices and thinking of how different life would be if we went back in time. When we think about it, our ability to travel through time has been an ongoing theme in fiction books, movies, and various other forms of media.
That line of thinking directly impacts our current happiness. The older we get, the more difficult it is to let go of our past. It seems as though each year, the desire for time travel or having your younger self make better decisions grows even stronger. We begin to lose our youthful spirit and seek out any way possible to revert back to that state.
We question things because there is a finite number of choices anyone can make in a lifetime. The world is too big a place to do everything we are interested in doing. I can’t have a career and try to devote hours of practice to a piano to play in the world’s most renowned theatres.
I also can’t devote hours of practice to become an astronomer when I already have a full-time job. As we age, our interests change, and thus the decisions we make will change. We are in control of what decisions we make but not necessarily in control of how they will affect us in the long run.
Unfortunately, when we think of the decisions we could have made, we tend to think of the best-case scenario for the outcomes. For instance, if we think about the option we had in our youth to apply ourselves and become a doctor, we often imagine a fancy lifestyle that accompanies it. We don’t think about the hours of hard work to see patients each week. We don’t see continual research to keep our skills sharp.
In another example, we may think about how we should have stuck with photography. We imagine ourselves as National Geographic photographers, living life as an adventurer. We don’t see a lack of income if our pictures don’t sell. We don’t see the hours spent away from family. Most importantly, we forget that chasing that lifestyle negates all of our current family and friends.
We are trying to make that we humans don’t like to think about the bad parts of life. We only think of the good aspects and tend to gloss over all negative ones. This isn’t exactly helping us when we begin thinking about how our decisions could have been different.
As humans, we are biased towards thinking about our futures. This is why when we think about our past, we decide on what changes we should have made that impact our current and future lives. Philosopher Derek Parfit used a story about a time machine to help us mentally solve this dilemma.
He would tell people to imagine a machine that could take you back to the past. Whenever you wanted, for as long as you wanted, and with no cost or consequences. Would you use it? Most people would say yes because they tend to think of all the good things they could do.
However, if you think about it deeper, this isn’t a good idea. You would essentially live two lives with no guarantees that the second one would have a different outcome than the first.
Just because we had a bad day at work doesn’t mean that line of thinking can be applied to every other moment in our lives. If we let one wrong decision ruin the rest of our lives, then we have genuinely wasted our lives. This is why we should stop living in the past and move forward while looking at our decisions objectively. Unfortunately, I have seen too many people get fed up after a bad day at the office and altogether leave their profession. Now they spend all of their time reminiscing about the good times and what could have been had that one day never happened.
We need to accept that we will make bad decisions but also realize that we shouldn’t think about them constantly. It’s more essential for us to focus on what can be done in the present moment instead of incessantly thinking about all of the good decisions we could have made in the past.