Life happens, and so do bad decisions that lead to bad mistakes that lead to regrets. While not all regrets are regrettable, the feeling of regret is not bad by itself.
Looking back on our lives, when we run out of reasons, we see regrets—one of the most common negative emotions.
We regret a thing in one of two ways:
- what we could have done but did not, or
- what we should not have done but did.
Of course, none of us can always make the best decision when a situation is life-critical or time-critical.
Regret is a sign that we have made a choice that turned out spectacularly wrong (you know what’s that one word we mean!).
Regrets arrive with a posse of bad sidekicks: guilt, stress, overthinking, and self-blame. Regrets take us down, yet we need them to live a satisfying life. Why?
Because, like a good teacher, regret teaches us how to do better next time and improve our future. Like a lighthouse, it shows us the scraggy rocks of our past mistakes. So we can avoid them in the future, make better decisions, and take wiser actions.
What Are Regrets?
Regrets are feelings of sadness, disappointment, or remorse caused by the realization that something wrong or stupid has happened or was done by us. Regret is a natural response to making mistakes and can happen at any point in life.
Regrets are an inevitable part of life and have a common theme: the past.
Everyone has a few regrets. Most of these are products of our past decisions gone wrong. They make us blame ourselves that the outcome would have been different if only we had acted differently.
But, in reality, who knows? The outcome could still have been negative if we had done things differently. This unpleasant feeling we have when we reflect on our bad decisions in the past is the emotion of regret.
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Feelings of regret originate from our negative thoughts about past events. And they can immensely impact our present and future behavior if we keep lingering on them.
What Are Our Biggest Regrets?
Education, career, romance, parenting, self, and leisure seem to provoke the most regret in us (Newall, Chipperfield, Daniels, Hladkyj, & Perry, 2009; Roese & Summerville, 2005).
According to Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years caring for patients in their final 12 weeks of life, the Top 5 Regrets of Dying are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I had let myself be happier.
According to the science-writer and bestselling author Daniel Pink, our four core regrets are:
- Foundation Regrets – the regrets for our ‘favorite’ mistakes that we always try to justify.
- Boldness Regrets – the failure of having not had the courage to do something and be happier.
- Moral Regrets – the regret of having failed at being moral, as being deceitful or unfaithful.
- Connection Regrets – the regret of not having or not patching up our meaningful relationships.
These four regrets, Pink argues, operate as a ‘photographic negative’ of the good life.
What Is The Psychology of Regretful Behavior?
Psychologists have extensively studied regret, and they have found quite a few interesting things about it.
Regret is a common emotion (Shimanoff, 1984; Landman, 1987). It occurs frequently when the outcome of a decision is worse than the probable outcome of a discarded alternative (Zeelenberg, 1999).
Regret, according to regret theory, is a counterfactual emotion resulting from a comparison between what is and what might have been (Bell, 1982; Loomes & Sugden, 1982).
However, not every “might have been” is meant to elicit regret. Regret seems to arise from comparisons between an actual outcome and an outcome that might have occurred had one chosen a different action.
Regrets are a way to make us feel bad about something we did (action) or did not (inaction). However, we seem to regret our inactions more than our actions.
Research suggests, across cultures and populations, regret about lack of action haunts more people for longer lengths of time.
- For example, if we take no action to prevent further losses after suffering a negative outcome, our regret will be intense if these losses occur (“Why didn’t I do anything?”).
- If, on the other hand, we take steps to avert further losses but fail, the regret will be less intense (“At least I tried!”).
Regretful behavior is a result of regretful thoughts related to past actions. Sugden, in 1985, suggested that regret that stems from self-recrimination or self-blame is most obvious when one’s decision was irrational, inexplicable, or indefensible.
Psychologists believe regrets are not only natural but also vital for human development because they teach people how to avoid future erroneous behavior.
Regret is an indication of our moral growth and can help us change our ways in the future. Regrets are inevitable, as we cannot avoid mistakes, since every decision has some risks and will have some kind of unacceptable outcome.
Regrets are a sign that someone is trying to do better and be better. They help us learn from our mistakes, remember things we enjoyed, and motivate us to do more.
Theories of Regret
• The Temporal Theory of Regret (Gilovich and Medvec, 1995) is one of the most well-known regret theories. It suggests that changes in regret intensity over the lifespan are driven by the nature of the regrettable decision itself. It suggests that “actions produce greater regret in the short-term, whereas inactions (failures to act) generate more regret in the long run.”
• According to the Decision-Justification Theory of Regret (Connolly and Zeelenberg, 2002), the underlying decision logic is critical for any regret. It says we feel a regret to be more intense when the result of our decision is comparably worse.
• According to the Belonging Theory of Regret (Morrison et al., 2012), the context of the regretting decision is fundamental in generating regret intensity. It says a person feels more regret when they realize their poor decision has caused an outcome that threatens their sense of social belonging.
The “belonging” theory finds support in a recent study titled: What Makes for the Most Intense Regrets?
In psychology, this phenomenon is known as Counterfactual Thinking. Counterfactual thinking is a mental simulation of an alternative past or future reality that cannot be changed but might be desirable.
Two decades of research on counterfactual thinking exposes an oddity: thoughts about the past that make us feel better are relatively rare, while thoughts that make us feel worse are exceedingly common. — Daniel Pink
Why Do We Have Regrets?
Regret makes us human. Regret is an emotion that humans evolved to build strong social bonds. It helped them survive the hardships of primitive life by relying on each other’s right decisions.
An inability to feel regret would have allowed our ancestors to carry on without fixing their mistakes. It would have led them into failing in their obligation to do what’s good for society.
That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees. — Marcus Aurelius
The feeling of regret is linked to the feeling of guilt. We regret our actions because they may have caused harm to others. However, we regret more the things we did not do or say because we feel they could have had a positive impact if we had done them.
We regret our past actions because we are constantly comparing our current state to the way we were at the time of the action. We are constantly thinking about how life would be different if we had made a different choice.
When you feel guilty of wrongdoing, you regret what you did. But when you are regretful, you feel sad for what right thing you did not do.
How Do Regrets Impact Our Behaviors?
We often regret our past decisions and behaviors. But these regrets impact not only our present but also our future. Regrets can affect us in different ways, depending on what we regret.
Research has shown that regretting one’s own past decisions can have a negative effect on mood and self-esteem, which may lead to depression and anxiety disorders. But in the long run, regret helps us course-correct and make better choices.
An important aspect of regrets is that they make us more cautious about our decisions and behaviors in the future. If you want to avoid future regrets, do not put off your corrective actions indefinitely.
Regrets are powerful. They can influence our behaviors in the present and future. Sometimes, the regret of not doing something is stronger than the regret of doing something.
Why It’s Wrong To Live With “No Regrets?”
Here’s why having “no regrets” in life is a bad decision:
Recognizing past regrets can help to prevent future regrets. Regrets are hardwired into our brains, and we seem to have them because they help us become better at surviving in society. A “No Regrets” attitude means we are not open to apology and correction, no matter how much hurt we caused or whom we hurt.
A study by the University of Virginia and Yale found that people who feel they have no regrets are more likely to engage in behaviors like infidelity and risky promiscuous behavior, such as cheating on a partner.
The phrase “no regrets” is a common expression. It means that the person has no regrets about not doing something or not having done something.
The pop philosophy that we should live our lives without regrets, which has been around for quite some time now, is unhelpful and even ridiculous. It has recently regained popularity, as we hear celebrities declare they are proud of all their mistakes and have no regrets in their lives.
It is one thing, and a good thing, to accept and own up to one’s mistakes. After all, our mistakes help us learn how to live better. But it is plainly wrong to be proud of all your mistakes, especially those that caused harm to others.
Living without regrets is like telling others you don’t care about having hurt anyone in life with your mistakes. It says that you believe, in the end, people would accept and forgive you for repeating your mistakes. This mindset is wrong because it doesn’t allow you to learn from your mistakes and grow out of them.
Living a life of “No Regrets” also sends out the arrogant message that one does not need to change their life for the better.
How Regret Makes Us Better Persons?
Regrets make us better persons by helping us accept and understand our decisions and behaviors better in the context of the culture we live in. It is critical for the safety of a social group for its members to be able to look back on their past and see that some actions they did or did not do were bad or wrong. This hindsight can help us improve our lives and the lives of others.
The feeling of regret can be a powerful motivator. It makes us think about what we could have done differently, and then take appropriate actions to avoid future regret.
Regret is a negative emotion that lowers our happiness levels. Regret brings pain and suffering for what we said or did.
However, this pain is good—it can propel us toward future goodness. If we know how to handle our regret well enough, it can have a positive impact on our overall life satisfaction.
If you felt regretful about not studying for an exam that you just took, you would spend your time learning for the next one. If you feel regretful about not going to the gym for a week, you will head to the gym and start working out again.
Feelings of regret lead us to become better people because it makes us want to change our behavior, so we can avoid future regrets.
Regret can lead to better decision-making because it encourages us to choose what we think will make us the happiest in the future.
How To Deal With The Negative Emotion of Regret?
Some psychologists feel it’s better to reflect on your mistakes, rather than to regret them.
Most psychologists hold that regret is a natural part of life, and therefore, an important feeling to process. They believe we should not suppress or ignore our regrets. Instead, we should learn to accept them and live with them without indulging excessively in them, like ruminating.
The better idea is to move on in life, having learned our lessons from our regrets and corrected our future behaviors. Though, it can be often difficult to move on from regret because the mistakes associated with regrets are part of our unchangeable past.
In the end, there is no single correct response to this question because so much depends on how each individual makes of their regrets.
Regret is one of the most powerful negative emotions that humans experience. The negative thoughts of regret can become so powerful that they affect our mental health and even lead to depression. For some, it’s so hard to come to terms with the negative thoughts of regret that they turn to self-harm as a coping mechanism.
When one thinks of all the possibilities that have been lost because of one wrong decision, it is easy to feel regretful. There are ways to cope with these negative thoughts, and here are some helpful strategies for dealing with the negative thoughts of regret.
1. Accept your mistakes.
Emotions do not need avoidance, but acceptance. One of the most important things in dealing with regret is accepting the mistake behind it.
Accept your regrets and learn to live with the consequences of your actions. Do not define your life by the sum of your regrets. Your future life does not have to be ruined as a result of your past regrets.
Accepting them means you acknowledge that you have made a mistake and understand why you did what you did. It does not mean feeling sorry for yourself or dwelling on your past choices.
Accepting also means showing self-compassion in handling your regrets.
2. Confront your regret.
The second strategy is to face up to them with courage. Confront your reasons for your regret, and understand what you would do differently in the future to not commit those mistakes again.
Confronting your regrets means understanding what caused them so that you can learn from them, and can avoid making them again.
A helpful strategy to do this is to ground yourself in the present. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help pull you out of the past and observe your present without judgment.
You could use the present moment to reflect on what went wrong, what you could do to fix it, and how you may avoid making the same mistake again.
3. Change your behavior.
A third strategy is to use your regret as a fulcrum to change the direction of your future behavior. First, stop being someone who wants to control every aspect of their life—even their past.
You have no control over your past, so stop your “if only I had…” thoughts.
Second, convince yourself that no life can be lived without mistakes, and no good life can be lived without regrets. This can start your behavior change process: expecting less from events and people.
Change your attitude and behavior by abandoning expecting others to act the way you want, waiting for events to unfold the way you want, and trying to control things outside your control.
Remember, you have only little control over your future. There will always be instances or events that lie beyond your control. The Stoics knew this dichotomy of control quite well.
4. Learn from your regret.
Look at the advantages that came with your regret. For example:
- Take the motivation to learn more about yourself and change into a better person.
- Take the inspiration to seek forgiveness from people you have wronged.
- Take the ideas on how to be better prepared for similar major events in the future.
Regret motivates us to live a life well lived by reminding us that our time is limited. So grab those fleeting opportunities to educate yourself.
5. Don’t let regret consume you.
Of course, wallowing in regret is bad. Regrets, if allowed to fester, can have a seriously negative impact on your mood and make your life.
Don’t let your regret consume you. Self-regulate your emotional atmosphere. Suppress your emotions, if necessary, to keep your regretful feelings from overpowering other aspects of your life.
If you find it too much to get over on your own, see a psychological counselor or therapist.
Having “no regrets” is a bad idea because it can prevent you from living full and happy lives. If you find someone who’s not yet convinced by that, try this mind twister :
You have heard the saying: “You only live once.” And the question: “What if you could live all over again?”
Many would jump to quip that they would repeat all their mistakes and then pursue a life of “no regrets.” So, if you think you must live another life without regrets, can you avoid the regret of not having “no regrets?”
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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