In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark provides data on interest rates to show that Europeans gradually developed lower time preferences. In other words, they were more likely to delay gratification and plan for the future — paying back loans, for example. He also interprets data on wills as showing that most people of English descent today are the genetic legacy of the middle class, the poor and the aristocracy mostly having failed to reproduce themselves. That leaves us with a society where the average person maximizes their long-term material welfare much better than their counterparts would have in the Middle Ages or before. There appears to be somewhat of a drawback, though: doing so makes you more miserable over the long term.
John Tierney recently reviewed a series of studies on how the intensity of guilt and regret change over time. Read the most recent article for free here, which contains five related studies. The journal article and Tierney’s write-up are brief and straightforward, so I own’t belabor the details here. Basically, in the short term, indulgence-driven guilt stings more than prudence-driven regret, and this motivates us toward virtuous behavior, such as delaying material gratification. In the long term, though, guilt has faded away and regret over missing out on life’s pleasures weighs more heavily on our mind.
Oddly, then, maximizing long-term material well-being minimizes long-term hedonic well-being. If the big shift to low time preferences was as recent as Clark suggests — during the Modern and especially Industrial period — then perhaps our brain’s pleasure or reward system hasn’t had enough time to rewire itself to make us feel warm and fuzzy about having saved, abstained, and done the prudent thing in the past. Rather, since all other human groups before the big change, and certainly other primate groups, had very high time preferences, the reward system is probably designed to make us feel happy as we pour over a mental photo album that’s stuffed with memories of irresponsible fun and indulgence.
Hey, no one ever said that changing the world and getting shit done was going to be emotionally uplifting.
I’d like to see follow-up studies focus on individual differences in how strongly they are motivated by guilt vs. regret. Most personality questionnaires measure something called excitement seeking or novelty seeking, as well as impulsiveness. We might predict that impulsive and excitement-seeking people are more motivated by avoiding regret than avoiding guilt, which leads them toward indulging more in the present. You could re-do all of the five studies in the article above, but using personality traits as predictor variables. If different parts of the brain light up when we feel guilt vs. regret, you could see if impulsive and excitement-seeking people showed greater responses to regret-based scenarios than guilt-based scenarios. (E.g., they read a story about someone else feeling these emotions, they reflect on an episode from their own lives, they see pictures of the faces of others expressing these emotions, and so on.)
On an applied level, if you suffer from “hyperopia” — planning to much for your material future — you can push yourself to indulge merely by reflecting on how you may in 20 years regret missing out on having fun now. If you remind yourself that “You’ll regret it if you don’t,” then you won’t find yourself sighing later on about that more exciting trip you should have taken your son on, that year of working in a more fulfilling city for less pay, or that student who made a pass at you that you should have slept with.