Why having regrets can be more helpful than you might think

Written by Yvonne Gavan

Having ‘no regrets’ may seem healthy, but is never looking back actually good for us? Stylist explores the surprising truth about regret and why it matters. 

It might sound like a 90s T-shirt slogan, but the phrase ‘No regrets’ is so familiar it’s managed to embed itself into our collective psyche. But, while the idea of being able to go through life without looking back and accepting that we cannot change things is an alluring one, it’s also unrealistic. 

In fact, phrases like ‘No regrets’ only seem to add an extra dash of guilt (as if we needed it) to those thoughts we all have about what we could have done differently; what life might be like if we’d chosen a different path or made another decision.  

However, we may be doing ourselves a disservice by following this edict. According to a new book, The Power Of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, by bestselling author Daniel Pink, regret isn’t something we should avoid; in fact, it can be immensely helpful.

Drawing on a wealth of research spanning the fields of psychology, biology, neuroscience and economics, Pink argues that regret should play a fundamental role in our lives and looking back and reflecting might actually promise a wealth of vital lessons. 

Why do we experience regret?  

Regret is a process that involves ‘counterfactual’ thoughts. According to Dr Amy Summerville, a social psychology professor who led the Regret Lab at Miami University for 11 years and now works at Kairos Research, these thoughts are the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred and are counter to the facts.

Imagination – one of the traits that makes us human – is what sparks regret, Dr Summerville explains on BBC Radio 4’ s The Digital Human. When you envisage what your life might have been like if you’d chosen a different career path, for example, you’re creating an alternative world.

Dr Summerville adds that regret is closely linked to agency because we only feel the emotion “when our own actions are what would have changed an outcome”. When the circumstances surrounding an event are beyond our control, we’re much less likely to wonder what could have been.  

Does modern life make us more likely to regret?  

There are more choices available to us today in all aspects of our lives than ever before. This can feel overwhelming, especially now we have access to countless lives and possibilities via social media.

“When we see hundreds of photos of other people’s desirable holiday destinations on social media, it’s easy to regret our own travel decisions,” says Dr Summerville. 

She adds that the constant ping of instant messaging and emails means we’re also having to make fast decisions without giving them the consideration they deserve.  

How can we use regret to our advantage? 

In 2020, Pink conducted the World Regret Survey, the largest survey of attitudes surrounding regret ever conducted. With his research team, Pink collected regrets from more than 16,000 people in 105 countries and used the findings to lay out what he sees as the emotion’s three broad benefits.

Firstly, Pink says, regret can attune our capacity to make decisions. By scrutinising our actions it means we hold ourselves to account the next time. 

Secondly, it can sharpen our performance in a range of tasks. By reflecting and revising events we can improve our output.

Finally, regret can heighten our sense of meaning and connectedness. When we allow ourselves to appreciate what we’ve lost, it means we feel more deeply.

The four core regrets 

Before we can fully realise the benefits regret can hold, it’s important to learn how to identify what Pink describes as the four core regrets most people have. Each category of regret has a key lesson it is meant to teach. 

For Pink, if we examine our regrets and ask ourselves questions about them, it means we can understand ourselves better and come closer to living a good life. 

These regrets are related to the groundwork of our lives, such as getting a decent education, staying healthy and managing our money. They depend on our capacity to be conscientious and responsible. Get these basics right and we thrive – but slip up and regret follows.

We are all offered countless chances in life and it’s up to us whether we choose to take them or not. According to Pink, being bold and taking risks leads to less regret.

Although we may rationalise them at the time, there are choices that we know, deep down, are wrong even when we’re making them. Whether they involve lying to a spouse, swindling a business partner or cheating on a test, these types of regrets are insidious because they compromise our belief in our own goodness.

There are always going to be people in our lives who are fundamental to our sense of self: partners, parents, siblings or friends. When we neglect these relationships there is a deep and abiding sense of loss. 

Ultimately, Pink’s research finds that we should embrace not reject regret and harness its power to bring about change and growth. Regrets can help us to understand ourselves and the world around us more fully, making us better versions of ourselves. 

So the next time you feel that lurch in the pit of your stomach when you think about something you said, did or didn’t do– it’s OK. Be brave, be bold, bring it into the light and allow yourself to ponder a while – you won’t regret it. 

Images: Getty

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