Do you have any regrets in life? Seemingly everyone does—and it’s probably been this way since recorded history. The ancient Israelites regretted having fled Egypt as slaves and blamed Moses for their desert malaise. The American revolutionary spy Nathan Hale famously regretted “having but one life to give” for his new nation in its war against England. And the most acclaimed business leader of our time—Steve Jobs—regretted in a final interview that he had not been closer to his four children.
Yet, surprisingly, this topic has only recently begun to receive scientific attention. Though Sigmund Freud a century ago uncovered plenty of guilt in his middle-class Viennese patients—and linked it to suppressed sexual thoughts—today psychologists view regret as a different, broader phenomenon. We can certainly have regrets without feeling guilty about our thoughts or actions. Psychological research is now converging on the notion that what we regret, how often we do so, and with what intensity, all make a difference. These findings make intuitive sense if regret is as universal as it seems—for not everyone is fixated on past mistakes or missed opportunities in life, while some people can't ever seem to let go.
What specifically has positive psychology discovered? Let’s take a quick look.
First, there’s a big distinction between our regrets over actions versus inactions. It seems that regrets over commissions elicit mainly “hot” emotions like anger (“How could I have been so stupid to have bought that car!”). Regrets over omissions typically elicit feelings of wistfulness (“What if I had moved to London with Kathy that summer instead of staying in New Jersey?”) or despair (“Why didn’t I go to law school when I had the chance? I’ve wasted my life selling life insurance.”) Research consistently shows too that people experience more regret in the short-term over their actions, but as they age, this attitude substantially reverses.
In other words, you’re likely to find lots of folks in their 20s or 30s whose chief regrets are about foolish things they’ve done. In contrast, those in midlife and beyond are far likelier to feel regrets on what they didn’tdo—and those regrets may be more painful to bear.
Because it’s clear that nearly everyone has some regrets going through life, how we manage these is becoming an important health topic. In an interesting study led by Dr Jamie Farquhar at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, retirees revealed two strategies in coping effectively with their life regrets. The first strategy involved actively using one’s retirement years to overcome a “solvable” regret—such as spending more time with one’s children, doing more traveling, or engaging in meaningful volunteer work. The second strategy involved “disengaging” from the regret by viewing it as unsolvable—such as acquiring more education—and consciously letting it go. The researchers concluded that “regret management is a significant determinant of activity engagement and satisfaction in retirement.”
Not surprisingly, the topic of regret is gaining the attention of big business today as a “handle” to pitch products and services aimed at relieving this painful emotion. For example, British Airways recently surveyed 2,000 American baby boomers (aged 55 and older), and the results were fascinating. When asked to name their biggest regret in life, more than 25% of participants said it was losing contact with friends—followed in order of frequency by 20% who said it was not traveling enough for leisure. As might be predicted, men were more likely than women to regret having worked too much and not spent enough time with their children (both at 17% of men compared to 8% and 12% of women respectively). In contrast, women were more prone than men to regret having insufficiently traveled (22% compared to 17% of the men). Of course, British Airways has a vested interest in encouraging people of all ages to travel for fun. How about other kinds of consumer purchases?
As reported by MIT News this year, research shows that affluent shoppers are more likely to regret not having bought an attractive item when they had the opportunity than in regretting after a sale that they paid too much for it. As MIT professor Karen Zheng commented, “Branded fashion items tend to induce strong stockout regret but weak high-price regret.” In other words, if you buy that fancy jacket you’re likely to ignore how much you paid for it as time goes by, and be glad that you bought it in the first place. But if you miss out on the opportunity to buy it, you’ll feel the pain of regret. Interestingly, this effect doesn’t seem to hold for mundane items of clothing like t-shirts—as most of us view these clothes as interchangeable.
What’s absolutely clear is that severe regret is bad for our mental and even physical health. Research led by Dr Isabelle Bauer of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Centre found that people who compared themselves to successful friends and neighbors had more frequent colds than those who did the same with people whom they considered worse off. A study by Dr Carsten Wrosch at Montreal’s Concordia University linked severe regrets among the elderly to increased sleep difficulties, cortisol imbalance, and diminished feelings of happiness.
Can we learn to minimize our regrets and thereby improve our emotional well-being? It definitely seems so. Experimental research suggests that keeping a journal—especially to write about a painful personal experience—helps us to emotionally process the event and let it go. Perhaps the early 20th century British writer Katherine Mansfield said it best when she mused, “Regret is such an appalling waste of energy. You can’t build on it. It’s only good for wallowing.”
Think of a regret of commission, and give yourself adequate time to write about it fully. Then let your emotional attachment go. As for a persistent regret of omission, it’s useful to make a thorough “reality check.” That is, would things really have changed much in your life if you had done that, or are you just fantasizing a perfect scenario in our imperfect world, to little or no benefit?