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5 Key Things We've Learned About Regret

... and why you should be leery of anyone who says they have none.

Key points

  • One survey revealed that 80% of people claim they are living with no regrets — but that mindset is only plausible for kids under age 7.
  • Regret only comes after a period of introspection and patience to observe whether a choice was right or not.
  • We can regret actions taken, but will more intensely regret actions not taken.
  • Do not try to minimize regret because that keeps the focus on not making "mistakes." Learn instead to make calculated risks.
Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
Source: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

When I give seminars at colleges and corporations, I ask anyone who has lived a life without regrets to raise their hand.

More than 8 out of 10 people look me in the eye and, with great pride, shoot their hands into the air. 80% of people living an entire life without any regrets.

Either I am surrounded by the most mindful, compassionate communicators and problem-solvers in the world, or I am witnessing how concerned people are about their public image.

As scientists, we have learned a lot about regret. The Butthole Surfers, a 1980s punk rock band, captured the findings best in their lyrics to "Sweet Loaf" off their album Locust Abortion Technician:

"Daddy, what does regret mean?"
"Well son, the funny thing about regret is,
It's better to regret something you have done,
Than to regret something you haven't done."

You might be surprised to learn that the Butthole Surfers are not the definitive authority on this subject. I define regret as what we feel when we realize that our current situation might be better if we decided to act differently. It's a backward-looking, unpleasant feeling in which you blame yourself and wish you could undo the past. Perhaps you felt regret when you told your kids—or your spouse—to shut the [expletive] up after listening to them whine for four hours on a car trip.

Here are five interesting scientific discoveries about regret to meditate on:

You rarely find regret in young children.

Seven-year-olds can compare what happened and what might have been, and imagine that their present situation would be better if they had made better decisions in the past. Younger children—our 3- to 5-year-olds—still relish a sweet, oblivious state of mind. But eventually, like the rest of us, they will ruminate, and toss and turn through sleepless nights. Bide your time, parents...

To feel regret, you have to recognize the consequences of what you did or didn't do.

You need to be introspective and patient to know whether an action not taken was a poor choice. It takes a long time, for example, to discover that visiting Europe as a single 20-something might have been a great decision. The same goes for decisions about careers or choices of presidential candidates. We often don't find out the benefits of the paths not taken until later. Have you felt screwed for not knowing that you could have actually made a living testing video games for Microsoft? How many political candidates disappointed you by failing to deliver on what they promised?

Regrets concerning actions we've taken are more immediately troublesome.

Such feelings are often less intense than regrets about actions taken. There are often immediate repercussions for poorly chosen behavior. You get suckered by a pickpocket scam while walking in Barcelona. Instead of resisting the urge to check your email for three minutes, you whip out your iPhone while in the bathroom, and lo and behold, your slippery fingers deliver it to the toilet bowl. There's immediate, painful regret for unwise actions taken.

Regret for inaction or paths not taken do not go away as easily.

These linger and fester in our brains. While we can actively cope with poorly chosen actions we've taken, options foregone lead us to wonder incessantly about what might have been. Regardless of what unsatisfying car you end up buying, it can still be compared to even worse models that other people drive. Less so with the beautiful stranger with whom you had a deep, emotional connection after seven hours of breathtaking conversation but you failed to follow through on. That haunts you because you will never really find out whether you made the right decision.

Regret exists because it is useful.

When we feel regret, when we feel guilty and embarrassed by what we've done, we are motivated to undo the wrongful things we did and make better, more careful decisions in the future. Regret is unavoidable because there are opportunity costs for every choice made. Whenever you select a path, you immediately forfeit other choices and their benefits.

Regret is common. Whether we acknowledge these feelings to others is a separate issue. I will tell you why I am always scared when people tell me they have no regrets: We all learn and grow from our regrets. But people who try to minimize regret often feel a sense of anxiety and paralysis because they are more focused on not making errors and mistakes and less focused on taking calculated risks toward difficult, aspirational goals. To be succinct, without regret, you are done evolving, and you will be ineffective coping with an uncertain, unpredictable world where mistakes are inevitable.

Admit that you have regrets and you are saying, "I am open-minded and willing to take calculated risks with a desire to continually grow and learn."

Sounds good to me.