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How to Live Without Regrets

Math Says This Is the Secret to Living a Life With "Minimal Regret"

We can't avoid regrets, but we can help prevent them as much as possible. According to Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths's book, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, "Regret is the result of comparing what we actually did with what would have been best in hindsight."

An algorithm for living with the least regret (which we dive into below) tells us to do something pretty simple: live optimistically. It favors taking chances rather than playing it safe. Sounds risky, right? That's the whole point.

To help put this definition into context, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, had a solid job at an investment company before beginning what was originally an online bookstore. To decide whether or not to leave his position, he thought of it in terms of regret. He knew that he wouldn't regret going for it and failing but that he would regret never even trying in the first place. In the book, he said making his choice based on that thought process made it incredibly easy.

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Though computer science isn't able to eliminate regret in your life entirely, it can help you live with the fewest amount of regrets. Mathematicians Herbert Robbins and Tze Leung Lai proved key points about regret:

  • Even if you pick the best possible strategy, you will always have regrets because that's life.
  • You won't have as many regrets if you pick the best strategy and because you learn to make better choices over time.
  • Regret increases at a "logarithmic rate," meaning we can expect to have fewer new regrets than each previous year.

The most popular algorithm researchers have come up with to minimize regret is the Upper Confidence Bound algorithm. This method basically prefers the option with the most potential over the option that has been the best so far. "The Upper Confidence Bound is always greater than the expected value, but by less and less as we gain more experience with a particular option," Christian and Griffiths wrote. The less we know, the lower our expectations are, and the greater the result can be.

These algorithms are based on optimism, giving an advantage to options we know less about — aka the benefit of the doubt.

"Following the advice of these algorithms, you should be excited to meet new people and try new things — to assume the best about them, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. In the long run, optimism is the best prevention for regret," they wrote.

So, moral of the story? Be open-minded and don't be afraid of taking risks, because you never know what the outcome will be.

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