Opportunity Costs Revalued

The claim “I have no regrets for the way I have lived my life” denies reality. As long as memory exists, so will regret. Philosophical delusions can’t veil unpleasant visions of the past, as fleeting as those visions might be. Regrettable misbehavior and lost opportunities will always haunt us.

Some think that regret can be mitigated by evaluating opportunity costs, or the “loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.” For instance, if you take a day off from work, your opportunity cost is the money you would have earned by working. If you choose to oversleep, overeat, and watch TV for hours on end instead of exercise regularly, your opportunity costs are good health and a longer life.

Granted, survival needs often dictate life decisions since so many people are hamstrung by restrictive circumstances. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Necessity is the mistress and guide of nature.” Yet if free will exists, then we must be more than just marionettes on strings. We can at least privilege physicality, love relationships, family camaraderie, the Arts, intelligent reflection, work, and so on no matter how much fear and desperation the world imposes on us. Some even manage to spend a good portion of their waking hours living mindfully in the present instead of obsessing over the past and future.

It would be nice to think that a measured study of one’s opportunity costs should lead to happier outcomes, but in truth, anything along these lines prompts uncertainty. Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” comes to mind—deciding to travel down one of two roads inspires curiosity over what the other road held in store. Put simply, people change. The distance between who we were decades ago and what we have become is immense. The symbols we attached to “meaningful” behavior have taken on a different shape.