Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash
When I was a kid, we often went out for ice cream and a game of mini-golf. Most of the set-ups were fun and relatively easy to negotiate. But there was always that one hole. That one where you gotta time it just right to get the ball through the series of 3 tunnels, making sure the rotating blades of the windmills don’t get in the way. UGH! I hated that one.
Certainly by the time you were on your 12th attempt, the game started to lose its carefree feel and performance anxiety set in.
In our family, we devised a rule to deal with this and keep the game fun. If, after 5 tries you could not get that ball where you wanted it to be, you got a Do-Over. You got to wipe the slate clean and start over again. Usually this worked.
Sometimes you just have to step back, take a deep breath and start back at the beginning with a fresh attitude.
In “real life” we rarely get do-overs. Most of the time you can’t un-ring a bell.
Enter . . . regret.
What Psychology Tells Us About Regret
Regrets: everyone has them to some extent. Harsh words, career mistakes, missed opportunities — these are all common experiences. Sometimes we regret the way we acted or failed to act. Other times, we think we wouldn’t do anything differently but regret that the outcome was not as intended.
Regret is generally considered a negative emotion, in the classic way that we regress to automatically judging something either “good” or “bad.” While it surely doesn’t feel good, regret can be good for us in several ways by helping to clarify and focus the confusing aspects of a situation.
After all, for the most part, the majority of us are doing the best we can, given the circumstances. Most of us make bad choices because we don’t have all the information about just how bad that choice is. Regret gives us the gift of hindsight to tuck away for “next time.”
Regret gives you perspective nothing else can.
Psychologist Carl Jung once said “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Knowing what you don’t want, how you don’t want to be, from first-hand experience, helps you truly understand what you do want to do or be.
Regret can also keep us humble. And at least a little bit of humility is a good thing. Its opposite is not. Regret reminds us that we are not perfect and puts us in touch with our humanity.
Run amok, of course, regret, like just about anything let run amok, can be negative and harmful. Contemplating is good. Reflecting is good. Ruminating? Not so much. Obsessing on what you could have and should have done better can lead to feelings of worthlessness and depression that paralyzes us instead of inspiring us to do better.
Research has indicated a cultural component to the experience of regret.Collectivistic cultures that emphasize the group over the individual tend to report experiencing less regret. Individualistic societies place an emphasis on individual choice, independence, and performance, setting the stage for self-doubt and blame.
Other research, conducted by Neal Roese of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has indicated regret is considered the most effective negative emotion, specifically with respect to: (1) making sense of the world, (2) avoiding future negative behaviors, (3) gaining insight, (4) achieving social harmony, and (5) improving ability to approach desired opportunities.
While wallowing in missed opportunities or less-than-stellar behavior has been shown to have negative effects on physical and emotional health, when used sparingly, and in an introspective and constructive manner, it can clearly be a tool to facilitate decision-making and increase satisfaction.
Regrets can be big or small based on the severity of the negative outcomes for ourselves and others. But either way, they can provide a guiding light and the wisdom that can only come from experience.
Perhaps a healthy way to consider some of our less-than-perfect life decisions was best expressed by the classic crooner Frank Sinatra: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention”
And with a little luck, sometimes life even gives you a do-over.