Why We Do Things We Know We’ll Regret

Our instincts often steer us to love things and use people. We need to do the opposite.

A man in a yarmulke blows a horn. Smiley faces are blowing out of it like confetti.
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

“We have willfully sinned,” millions of Jews around the world prayed in their Yom Kippur Viduy, or confession, over the past week—confession of sin being a core tenet of Judaism (as it is in many faiths). “We have committed evil … we have gone astray, we have led others astray. We have strayed from Your good precepts and ordinances, and it has not profited us.” For all people, Jews and gentiles alike, this prayer lays bare one of the greatest puzzles of human behavior: We voluntarily commit transgressions for which we are truly regretful, and they don’t even benefit us.

If you observed the holy Day of Atonement, I doubt you said, “I am sorry for the sins I committed this year. But I still chuckle when I think of the lies I told and the people I hurt. And the coveting—that was the best!” It almost seems like a glitch in the matrix of life, a faulty algorithm programmed into us that makes us think we will be happy if we commit certain acts, when in fact they make us miserable.

But we are not helpless. With effort and perhaps no small amount of divine guidance, we can find a better formula for living. By learning to live by our principles instead of by our impulses, we can make true moral progress and increase our own well-being.

As a kid, one of the weirder features of my lower-middle-class Seattle neighborhood was a religious hippie commune. Barefoot young adults with long hair and no visible means of support sat on the porches of oddly painted houses, playing guitars and—as my father speculated darkly—“probably taking drugs.” I remember talking to one young convert, who said he’d joined because traditional religions had “too many rules,” whereas in this sect, he could do what felt good.

In truth, we all have a little hippie inside us—a sense that we can’t go too wrong if we do what we feel. Traditional religion feels restrictive, and, in a way, unnatural. That’s not good for happiness, right?

Wrong. There is no evidence that doing what comes naturally delivers happiness. On the contrary, humans have evolved to survive and pass on our genes. In many cases, it is not happiness but unhappiness that makes this possible. Fear and anger, for example, are most probably fight-or-flight survival mechanisms. Envy of what others have keeps us competitive in mating markets, and sexual jealousy helps make sure we keep our mates and don’t inadvertently raise another’s offspring.

These instincts that helped our ancestors survive and multiply—often unhappily—led us as a species to a crossed moral circuit in the way we relate to things and other people. Left to our devices, we too often love the former and use the latter.

We hear constantly about the scourge of addiction in our society—about the dangers of opiates, alcohol, gambling, and even the internet. But arguably the most ubiquitous of our addictions is materialism—the inexorable human drive for more stuff. As the proverb teaches, “The eyes of man will not be sated.” This disordered love for things spawns engines of misery such as social comparison, malevolent envy, and consumerism. Nothing could be more natural: Accumulating stuff is the human equivalent of the peacock’s audacious tail—a way to show off to other members of the species. It’s inefficient for sure, but that’s the point: It says “I have more than I need, so mating with me will give you a life of abundance and ease.”

Meanwhile, we regularly use people for our own personal gain. Little in life is more natural than lying to improve our circumstances—children do it from the earliest ages, despite the fact that it hurts us and others. I suspect lying makes an appearance in almost every penitent’s confessions. We often cultivate close alliances simply to further our own interests—we have deal friends, not real friends, which does not bring us satisfaction. And pursuing the most intimate relationships without love—the very epicenter of “If it feels good, do it”—can lead to distress and sadness. Once again, the evolutionary imperative is clear, but at odds with happiness.

To love things is a kind of idolatry; to use people is to place ourselves at the center of the universe. The combination creates a third problem—perhaps the greatest of all. In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, the late author David Foster Wallace said, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Research seems to support Wallace’s claim. Materialism and self-centeredness are, you might conclude, disordered forms of worship, and neither of them is likely to improve your life.

You might find it discouraging that our natural impulses so often lead us to unhappiness. Alternatively, you might see it as a source of transcendence. Left to our animal instincts, we will head right into the gutter of misery and harm to others. But if we believe we are made in God’s image—b’tzelem Elohim in the Torah—then we see that we are not limited by our evolutionary proclivities. Fanning the spark of divinity within, we can defy our instincts and self-create a consciously better path to follow.

There is a certain feeling of futility in a life in which we pursue the same formula over and over, hope for happiness, and instead find sorrow. As the psychologist George A. Kelly dryly put it in his 1955 text, The Psychology of Personal Constructs: Volume Two, “We may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.” Allow me to suggest a way out through a simple transposition of verbs and nouns: to use things and love people. And from there, ordered worship might fall into place.

I am no renunciant of the world’s material delights, and poverty should not be your goal. The key is to keep inanimate things in their proper place. An older friend of mine, who had made a lot of money, always used to say he would never buy a second home. “Just another huge thing to worry about,” he explained. But then one day, he did exactly that. When I asked him what changed his mind, he explained that he wanted a beautiful place where his children and grandchildren would all come together for generations to come. The point of the purchase wasn’t the house—it was the relationships within his family.

Here is the practical lesson: Use your resources joyfully, without guilt or shame for your abundance. But use your bounty in service of the love you have for others. Beyond your ordinary needs, buy time and experiences with your loved ones. Support the people and causes you care about. Invest in getting to know others deeply.

While you’re at it, beyond your generosity with your money, give more of yourself by sharing your heart with honesty and defenselessness. Tell more people you love them, even when it is a little awkward or scary.

When you no longer fall prey to material idolatry or inordinate self-centeredness, you will find your worship can rightly migrate from yourself to something worthier. This is a ticklish subject, to be sure. I could simply say “Worship God,” but perhaps you and I disagree about faith and its manifold ambiguities. You and I must ponder for ourselves what worship means, given our beliefs, or even lack thereof. Is it following the laws of our parents and grandparents in a spirit of respect and tradition, even when inconvenient? Is it returning to times of prayer and reading the scriptures, perhaps for the first time in a long time? Is it talking about faith and tradition with our children, who might find it strange? Is it in adopting rituals and symbols that remind us of who we are and what we value? Find your own way and make it an offering.

Whether you spent yesterday in atonement or not, if you implement the right relationship to people, things, and worship starting now, this coming year will give you more joy and less to regret when confession time comes again.

I suppose I should disclose that I present this advice not as an observant Jew but rather as a committed Roman Catholic. If you wonder how I have such nerve, my answer is contained in the Book of Deuteronomy: “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.” As a social scientist, the ideas in this essay are my means. And I try to love the Lord through an offering to you as your little brother, as some Catholic leaders have taught us to regard ourselves in relation to the Jewish people.

Naturally, you might look askance at advice coming from a Christian “little brother” like me. Fair enough: Following a little brother’s counsel is not always prudent or desirable. But I offer it to you with what a little brother should properly have in abundance for his elders, and which I have for you: admiration and love, and my prayer that you and your family be inscribed in the book of life.

This essay is adapted from remarks by the author presented on October 5, 2022, at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts.