Anatomy of Regret

The perennial holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life was, at the time of its release in 1946, considered a resounding flop. It struggled to recoup its production costs at the box office, and many thought that the failure signaled the end of director Frank Capra’s career, which was until then like Spielbergianly bankable.

Maybe what those initial filmgoers who stayed away in droves were responding to–or more accurately, I guess, weren’t responding to–was something that even as a young little dudelet I sensed about the movie: the world minus George Bailey, the one where everyone was Lindy-hopping it up and getting their baby boom on, the one meant to scare ol’ George into reconsidering that felo-de-se notion–it didn’t seem entirely bad.  Sure, for George and his immediates Pottersville was pretty distressing, but everyone else–no longer living under the constant, teetering threat of a possible Savings and Loans scandal wrought by one dottering old dunderhead–could afford to be a bit more profligate, financially and otherwise.

The Bedford Falls/Pottersville dichotomy in some murky but important way fails to deliver on the movie’s basic homily, which is a pretty frequently recurring one throughout recorded human history: Be happy with what you have. Maybe it, meaning the homily, requires such repetition because it is so difficult to learn. There’s an existential buyer’s remorse that, for some people, seems to gnaw at even our most inconsequential decision, a feeling that, and I almost certainly misquote here, Kierkegaard described as like “being adrift on a sea of infinite possibilities.”

This gut-level philosophy was given some scientific support recently. Advances in behavioral economics suggest that everyday decision-making has a diagnosably real psychological effect on the human brain, one that Barry Schwartz in his bestseller The Paradox of Choice argued was pernicious and anxiety-producing. Many scholars dispute the severity of this effect, claiming that most rationally behaving humans are able to pretty quickly resolve the momentary cognitive dissonance of choosing between, say, a tasty quesadilla or a sensible salad for lunch. Still, there seems to be some intuitive truth to the basic assertion–after all, as choices proliferate, the odds that we make the optimal one necessarily go down.

Making matters worse is the fact that preying on this insecurity is pretty much the advertainment industry’s bread and butter. Look, it says, here is a better world, a world peopled by implausibly attractive potential mates that can be entered (the world and mates both) by simply purchasing the correct two-in-one body wash plus skin moisturizer. In his glow-in-the-darkly good essay E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace details how, as the viewing public grew more adept at detecting marketing ploys, marketers adopted more subtle ploys. The escalation resulted in the prevalent tone of the times, the ironic wink, in which advertisers co-opted the doubt that the audience felt towards advertising, and deflected it back against them, turning it into self-doubt. You’re too smart, too independent to fall for the old advertising tricks, commercials tell us. You ignore the herd and take time for yourself. And that’s why you’re sophisticated enough to truly enjoy our premium fat-free single-serve yogurt.

It’s a telling coincidence that the term of art for this strategy is “aspirational marketing;” in medicine, “aspiration” means the leakage of foreign material into the lungs. They both are a sickness. Wallace contends that this tactic has become so pervasive that it amounts to a London, 1941-level barrage on our psyche, and that the resulting national mood, the one that has driven our economy to this place of ruin, is one of constant and almost preemptive regret.

All of which is to say: I really wish I had drafted Emilio Bonifacio in my fantasy keeper league.

3 thoughts on “Anatomy of Regret

  1. I got real excited when I saw the word “anatomy.”

    Then it just turned out to be Ross complaining again.

    Bummer for me, is what I’m saying.

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