The Bright Side of Regret

In the wake of the United Kingdom’s historic Brexit vote, millions of astonished citizens dashed to social media to add their name to the Regrexit petition, hoping to reverse the reality of it all. The surge was so great that the server for the petition crashed. And we’re not just talking about folks who originally voted to remain in the European Union. A number of those who are taking a stand for the Regrexit petition now are those who originally voted to leave. What happened? What lead them to change their minds? It turns out that many people didn’t fully understand the potential consequences of their vote. Many saw the vote as a way to protest, never believing that the population at large would vote to leave the EU.1 And scores of others didn’t really seem to grasp what they were voting for, which we can gather from the most popularly Googled phrase after Brexit passed: “What is the EU?”2

Now I know it may seem as though this is all a windup to a trash session on the people who voted for Brexit without realizing the true nature or impact of their vote. It’s not. Actually, I give them a world of credit for being honest with themselves, sharing their sense that they made a mistake, and signing the Regrexit petition. It takes colossal bravery to openly own up to an error. Besides, who hasn’t made one? Virtually every single human being (and I’m only saying “virtually” because I’m not a big fan of absolutes in language like “always” and “never”) has made at least one decision, no matter how big or small, that spawned regret. Perhaps it was a moment when you had a chance to offer a little extra kindness to someone, but didn’t. It might have been the conversation you ached to start or that playful adventure you yearned to take, yet held back and played it safe. Of maybe it was all of the days you spent making choices that pulled you farther from the life you truly wished for, rather than nearer to it.     

We all make mistakes. Some little, some massive. 

But now that the Brexit decision and the regret following it are a reality, perhaps it’s worth stepping back and making sense of regret—what it is, how it influences us, how we can cope with it, and even how we can use it. In other words, is there a way to make regret work for us? 

What is Regret?

We’re decision-making machines. From the small-time daily decisions to the major league judgment calls, we’re constantly faced with options to choose from—all day, every day. Will we get coffee in the morning or not? Do we want sushi or the sandwich for lunch? Will we watch Game of Thrones or The Preacher tonight? (OK, that one was mine…) Will we hit the gym or lie on the couch today? Do we want to marry our partner or not? Do we want to become a lawyer or a florist? Do we want to join this club or that organization? Will we answer this email now or later? Will we work on that project in three hours or in three days? Will we vote to leave the EU or remain in it? Will we vote for Trump or Clinton? Will we travel to Spain or Puerto Rico this summer? Will we have children or remain childfree? Do we want to live in San Francisco or iParis when we retire? Do we want to utter that angry phrase in our head or say a more vulnerable, loving one instead? Will we get a degree or chill in the job we have? Do we want to advocate for civil rights or fight for environmental causes? See what I mean? It’s endless.  

When we make a decision, our mind often conjures up an image of what we believe would have occurred if we had chosen differently. And when the alternate reality we’re imagining is more desirable than the one we’re actually in, we’re more apt to feel regret, whether it’s just a tiny bit or a great deal, for the decision we made. It’s possible that our mental picture of the lane we didn’t walk is accurate, or it could be wildly off the mark. But that’s not really what matters here. All we need to cultivate regret is to buy into the idea that another decision would have been better for us or others in the end.3  

And you don’t need me to tell you that when regret blooms, it’s distressing and we’d rather not feel it. Unlike the emotion of happiness, no one is waving at the front of the line, eager to infuse life with more regret.4 Yet it comes up A LOT, holding the grand distinction of being among the most commonly mentioned emotions in everyday life.5 People experience regret in cultures around the world,6 and it arises in a variety of ways. We feel regret for actions we took (e.g., a harsh comment) and for those we didn’t take (e.g., not making a risky yet highly appealing career move). We experience regret for choices we made in days gone-by and for decisions we’re putting in motion in the here and now (e.g., leaving a job and moving elsewhere). We feel it when we stumble into unfortunate circumstances and when we pass over a happy break that could have uplifted our life.7

Regret is also distinct from disappointment, another emotion we feel, even though they seem to be much the same. We feel regret when we envision what might have happened if we’d made a different choice, whereas we feel disappointed when we make a choice and set the results we wished for against the reality. When we feel regret, we’re more inclined to wish we could undo our choice than if we feel disappointed.8 For instance, if you decide to try a trendy new diner for breakfast and wind up with flat, underwhelming pancakes, you’ll probably feel disappointed. However, if you imagine how much tastier your breakfast would have been if you’d just gone to your usual Saturday breakfast spot, then you’re more apt to feel some regret. 

We also tend to start experiencing regret fairly early on in life, at around six years of age. By the time we’re eight, we can even imagine what kinds of decisions will lead to regret.9 This ability to imagine the regret we would feel before even making a decision is known as anticipated regret, and it affects how we make choices.10 On that note, let’s turn to the impact regret has on our lives.

How Does Regret Affect Us?

If you’ve heard thoughtful, earnest people encourage you to live life without regrets, you’re in good company. But is this advice that we really want to follow? Well, it depends on what the advice means. If someone is telling us to literally live life without ever feeling the emotion of regret, it would be unwise for us to heed this idea. At first glance, regret appears to be a futile, ineffective emotion. After all, why allow ourselves to entertain such an unpleasant feeling when the decision we’ve made is in the past and there’s no time machine in sight? This is an entirely understandable perspective, but let’s delve a little deeper. If we treat regret as a source of vital information that we can learn from rather than a fruitless irritant to dismiss, we can better understand the mistakes we make and grow from them, preventing ourselves from making similar mistakes in the future.11 Indeed, children who are capable of feeling regret make choices that are more beneficial compared to kids who don’t feel regret, irrespective of how old they are and how skillful they are with language.12 At the same time, regret needs to play a supporting role in the theater of life to be useful to us. If we allow regret to take up too much space and run our show, then it starts becoming an albatross rather than a friend.13 Take major regrets in life, for instance. They have the potential to pull us downward into despair and powerlessness based on how we handle them.14   

But what if the advice to live life without regrets means something different? If someone is telling us to try to steer clear of regret, as least as much as we can, by imagining how much regret we’d feel before we actually make our choices, then we’ve just received some sage counsel. Our anticipated regret—the level of regret we picture feeling after a possible choice— has a potent impact on the decisions we make. It can affect how chancy our choices are. If we believe that taking a risk will lead to less regret, we’re more prone to leap into uncertain waters. On the other hand, we’ll be inclined to remain on terra firma if we think that leaning away from risk will bring less regret. In essence, we’re playing a regret avoidance game as we navigate the choices of our life.15 Anticipated regret can also motivate us to make vital changes such as stashing extra money in a retirement account16 or turning our life around toward a more refreshing, enjoyable, gratifying direction.17

So arguably, we need a certain amount of regret in life. But how do we keep the amount of regret we feel in check while using it to uplift our lives? Let’s explore this question next.

How Can We Make Regret Work For Us? 

Here we have a two-part question: 1) How can we manage regret so that it doesn’t squash us underfoot, and 2) How can we use regret to help us make effective choices that will serve us down the road? Let’s start with the first part. 

How can we cope with regret when it arises? According to a 2016 study, if we treat ourselves with compassion, kindness, and empathy in the face of regret, we’re more likely to forgive ourselves and accept the regret we feel. In turn, this newfound acceptance of regret predicts our sense that we’ve grown and developed as an individual.18 

In a related vein, when we can find the upside in the choices we regret, the feeling eases.19 This doesn’t mean that we attempt to con ourselves into believing that our decision was a sound one after all. That’s actually linked to stronger feelings of regret!20 Instead, it means finding the shiny spots and hidden advantages behind a mistake. For instance, let’s say you made a highly impulsive move that backfired terribly, landing you in an apartment you detest and a job you loathe. As much you feel tempted to kick yourself for breaking your typically deliberate, cautious style, you also see that the move taught you how hardy and resourceful you are, and you would never have met the love of your life otherwise. Our ability to see the plus sides in our less than sterling choices helps us to lighten the regret we feel. 

Our coping options also depend on whether we can remedy our regrettable choices. If we can’t rectify what’s been done, then we’re better off taking a self-compassionate approach or searching for silver linings. A fitting illustration is a study showing that people who released themselves from struggling with regrets they couldn’t mend were less at risk of being unhappy in their retirement years three years later.21 But what if we have the capacity to fix what feels broken? Then efforts to make different choices and repair our mistakes are linked to less regret.22 People who adopt this strategy in their retirement years are more likely to feel content and to be more energetically involved in their lives.23 

This brings us to the second part of our question: How can we make regret serve us rather than disempower us?

We can choose to see the opportunity inherent in regret, treating it as a stepping stone to learn about ourselves and others and remodel our lives in sublime ways.24 We can also practice the art of slowing down, taking a little time to envision our possible choices, and anticipating the regret we might feel with each one. This kind of thoughtfulness toward our decisions can inform and improve a number of the choices we make.25 And if we listen to the lessons regret offers and use them to make higher quality choices in our future, regrets can even transform from disheartening to affirming.26 

I hope the good people of the UK will take heart and find worthy, beneficial lessons to carry away with them from the Brexit vote that will serve them and others in time. But Brexit aside, let’s aspire in our own lives to face our missteps and regrets with kindness and mercy. Let’s move forward and thrive rather than stew in regret, mired in the doldrums as we beat ourselves up for what we cannot undo. So the next time you feel that seemingly absurd emotion with the bad rap, consider inching a little closer and treating it as a tool that’s there to serve you. Ultimately, regret has a bright side.