Discover the science behind regret and how to deal with regrets in your life.
Have you ever done something, said something, or not done something that you regret? You’re not alone. Everyone has regrets about things in life. The question is, what can we do about it? How do we live a life with fewer regrets and how do we deal with the regrets we already have? In this article, we’ll explore these questions. But first, let’s define regret.
Regret is a self-focused negative emotion about something that has happened or been done by us. We feel bad because we did or didn’t do something we believe we should or shouldn't have done. Given regret involves acknowledging our role in our present circumstances, it also often includes self-blame (Roese & Summerville, 2005).
The opposite of regret may involve a feeling of remorselessness and satisfaction over having made the right decision for us. Maybe the airplane we were supposed to get on crashes, and we feel an overwhelming sense that the decision we made not to fly was correct. Or maybe we break up with our romantic partner and quickly meet the love of our life. In these situations, we see how our past actions led us to the positive place we are at now.
What Leads to Regret?
A recent meta-analytic study aimed to look across several studies on regret to see what the most common causes of regret are. The research showed that Americans’ six biggest regrets involve: education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure. Less frequently reported regrets included: finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, and community (Roese & Summerville, 2005).
Examples of common regrets are:
2 Key Things That Lead to Regret
Ironically, the more opportunity one experiences, the greater chance for regret. If opportunities are denied or out of reach, we may experience anger or frustration, but we don’t usually experience regret. On the flip side, when we are given opportunities, it’s up to us to take advantage of these opportunities (or not). Researchers speculate that this is the reason why education is something many people regret—we can always go back to school, so it’s easy to regret not doing it (Roese & Summerville, 2005).
2. More options
In another ironic twist, more options often lead to more regret. Instead of enjoying the things that we have, we are aware that there are many other options that we didn’t choose, and this gives us more chances for regret. This paradox of excessive choice makes us less happy and more regret prone (Roese & Summerville, 2005).
What Do We Regret?
The research shows that action (versus inaction) produces more regret in the short term. For example, we might feel regret for saying something embarrassing or agreeing to do an annoying task for someone else. But these experiences of regret pass rather quickly (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994).
The things we’re most likely to regret are the things we didn’t do. Regrets of inaction are stronger and persist longer than regrets of action. So if we feel we “should have taken that trip”, “should have asked this person out”, “should have gone to college”, these regrets likely last longer than regrets of having done something we might rather have not done—things like we “shouldn’t have come to this party”, “shouldn't have taken this job”, “shouldn’t have gone a date with this person” (Roese & Summerville, 2005; Gilovich & Medvec, 1994).
What is the Purpose of Regret?
Regret motivates us to correct our behavior (so that we don’t have to feel this negative emotion anymore). But it seems that we may be more willing to correct our regrettable actions than our regrettable inactions.
When we’ve made a bad decision, we’re already acting, and researchers suggest it may be easier to change course once already in motion. Perhaps therefore many of us correct past mistakes (e.g., by getting a divorce, quitting a job, removing ourselves from an unrewarding friendship) but we find it more difficult to take that first step towards changing our lives in positive ways (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994).
How to Deal with Regret
Here are a few tips to reduce regret in life:
Accepting negative emotions like regret may help decrease these negative emotions (Shallcross, Troy, Boland, & Mauss, 2010).
Map past regrets to future action.
Consider taking some time to make a list of your regrets—both actions and inactions. For each one, note down anything you’ve done to correct your behavior and reduce the likelihood of future regrets like this emerging.
Ask yourself, "Will I regret it?"
Before deciding to do something or not to do something, see if you can figure out which one decision is more likely to result in regret. Based on the research, it seems that not doing something is usually the more regrettable action. So, say “Yes!” to life as often as you can.
Regret is a common emotion that occurs when our behavior results in undesirable outcomes. Given regret is a natural, normal, and even healthy response that helps us change our behavior, we are best served by learning to work with regret and use it to help us change our lives in the ways we desire.
Pamela (Pami) Parker currently serves as a holistic practitioner, coach and teacher. Her intention is to be a compassionate guide to those who choose to experience a healthier, happier and more peaceful way of life.