Regret: What Is It and How to Deal With It
What is regret, why do we feel it, and when do we experience it? Discover the science behind regret and how to deal with regrets in your life.
What Is Regret? (A Definition)
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).
What does it mean to regret something?
If we say we regret something, it means that we disagree with our past decision making. Maybe we decided not to take an opportunity that would have benefited us. Or, maybe we decided to break up with a romantic partner that we miss. Based on what we know now, our past decisions seem like the wrong ones.
What is the opposite of regret?
The opposite of regret may involve a feeling of remorselessness and satisfaction over having made, what we believe to be, the right decision. Maybe the airplane we were supposed to get on crashes, and we feel an overwhelming sense that the decisions we made were correct. Or, maybe we break up with our romantic partner and quickly meet the love of our life. Overall, we see how our past decisions paved the way for what we really want.
What Causes Regret?
A recent meta-analytic study aimed to look across the research on regret to see what the most common causes of regret are. The research showed that Americans’ six biggest regrets involve the following (Roese & Summerville, 2005):
Less frequently reported regrets included: finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, and community.
More specifically, people say they regret things like:
Opportunity breeds 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 not usually regret. The situation is out of our hands. But when we are given opportunities, that puts the onus on us—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).
More options, more regret
In the modern world, we have a zillion options for everything. 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. For example, we might think, “Arg. Why did I buy this pair of pants instead of those ones?” “Why did I decide to get in a relationship with this person when I might meet someone better on a dating app?” This paradox of excessive choice actually makes us less happy and more regret prone (Roese & Summerville, 2005).
Video: Nothing to Regret - Small Bad Habits Cause Lifelong Regrets
How Long Does Regret Last?
Instant regret versus delayed regret
Regret is not time-limited. We can experience it immediately or at just about any time later. For example, we might feel instant regret when we accidentally say something to a friend that hurts their feelings. Or, we might feel regret a short bit after the event. For example, maybe we get a test back in a class and see that we haven’t gotten the grade we desired. Then, we might regret not studying harder. Or, regret can even be pushed out years. Maybe we dropped out of school and years later we are dragging ourselves to a thankless job when we suddenly feel regret; maybe we made the wrong decision to quit school.
What are we most likely to 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).
It turns out that 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.”
When we don’t take action, our imagination fills in the blanks about how awesome the outcome could have been. This leads our minds to generate more regret as we compare what currently is with what could have been (Roese & Summerville, 2005; Gilovich & Medvec, 1994).
The Impacts of Regret
In general, regret pushes us to change our actions. We recognize that we have made a poor decision and we don’t want to make it again. So we change our behaviors in ways that hopefully bring improvement in our life circumstances.
The impact of age on regret
As we get older, the things we are likely to regret may change. For example, a college student may be more likely to regret romantic decisions or mistakes they made with friends. However, older adults are more likely to regret educational and career decisions (Roese & Summerville, 2005). This difference likely just reflects the types of decisions we are making at different ages. A young person may be more focused on relationships while an older person may be more focused on career.
Luckily, our overall level of regret goes down as we get older. This may be because we have fewer opportunities (Roese & Summerville, 2005). For example, as we get older we may have fewer romantic prospects and are more likely to be settled into a job, house, family, etc… There may be fewer big decisions that need to be made about life changes, therefore, leaving fewer opportunities for regret.
Another explanation for the decrease of regret as we age may be that we’ve experienced more regret in the past and we have learned from it. We used that regret as motivation to change our behavior in ways that lead to less regret later in life. We’ve made that mistake before, and we won’t do it again.
Regret Versus Other Similar Emotions
Regret is similar to and related to a variety of other self-conscious negative emotions. To clarify, here’s a bit on how regret differs from these other emotions.
Regret versus shame
Shame is defined as a self-conscious emotion arising from the sense that something is fundamentally wrong about oneself. Shame is different from regret because shame involves feeling negatively about ourselves and having self-doubt—we are not sure if we’re capable of doing things in the future. Regret is more about feeling negatively and feeling self-blame about something that has happened in the past.
Regret versus remorse
Remorse is a lot like regret and it certainly involves regret. Remorse may be a bit stronger though, or it may involve regret specifically about doing something we perceive to be shameful, hurtful, or wrong. Remorse may be more similar to guilt and it can be described as self-directed resentment.
Regret versus repentance
Repentance is the act of thinking about our past actions, possibly feeling regret, and committing to do better in the future. According to the research on regret, repentance might be a behavioral process that often follows regret. We feel regretful for our actions, therefore we want to be sure not to do these things again.
Living With 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. It may feel easier to just live as we are without taking an alternate path.
But 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 this is why 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).
We’re also less likely to do the psychological work-related to resolving regret about inaction. For example, if we’re a jerk to someone at work, regret might motivate us to be nicer in the future. But if we didn’t ask for a raise—we didn’t act and we regret it—we still might not ask for a raise in the future. As a result, we might keep ourselves in a cycle of regret because we’re not making the changes needed to reduce the greatest causes of regret. By shifting this pattern we may be able to live with fewer regrets.
Video: Don't Regret Regret
How to Deal With Regret
We all have to live with the past decisions we made, whether those were to do something or not to do something. The best thing we can do now to live with this regret is to try to prevent making similar decisions again that result in similar feelings of 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). Regret is all about the past, and there is nothing we can do about the past. This makes acceptance a good strategy to use for reducing regret. But just remember, if you don’t change the actions that caused the regret, you’re likely to experience more regret in the future.
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. Whether or not you’ve taken action on this regret, try to note down something additional you could do to prevent future regrets of this type. For example, I regret missing a family vacation at the beach because I had a lot of work to do. Although I still hold this regret, I now attend all family vacations and even try to instigate additional ones. So ask yourself, how can you prevent future regrets? Check out our manifestation masterclass to learn more about bringing your dreams to life.
Regularly 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 and reduce the potential opportunities for long-term regrets.
Video: The Antidote to Regret
More Articles Related to Regret
If you want to keep learning about self-conscious emotions like regret and how to create more enjoyable thoughts, emotions, and experiences, here are a few good articles to check out.
Books Related to Regret
Here are some books to explore if you want to keep learning about managing emotions like regret:
Final Thoughts on Regret
Regret is a common and unpleasant 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.